Democratic candidate for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, 6-year term
Responses to our questions
Evaluate the current performance of the MWRD.
The MWRD is entrusted with protecting residents from flooding and implementing sanitation policies to improve the water quality for much of the Chicago region. It has the tools it needs to ensure the water resources and its adjacent land remains free of pollutants by staff that are experienced and professional in the technical aspects of waste water treatment and pollution control.
The team of leaders at this agency include the management and appointed department heads that oversee the daily operation and report directly to the executive director who then reports directly to the Board. The District's commitment to protect the health and safety of its constituency and waterways is steady and fiscally sound; yet could use a few improvements.
The District's service area is generally within the boundaries of Cook County, the second largest US County by populace. It serves millions of people daily in a quiet manner. Little is known of this agency. The nine elected board members serve anonymously, voiced by the board appointed president with the occasional press release or web page update. The office of public affairs claims to promote the understanding of the District through a strong media presence via community partnerships and events with print, electronic and broadcast communication and social media. I believe they can do better.
The list of partnerships on the website include 3 water resource agencies and 1 civil engineering agency; that's it. They have partnered with organizations such as Openlands in school yard conversions to green space, yet it is not conveyed to the public or offered as an invitation to partner with other viable actors. Interaction between the District and other non-water resource agencies would prove valuable in promoting the agency to the public.
Producing brochures and other print materials will only link the public if they get out of the office and into the hands of the public. Interaction with local municipalities, community groups and others would provide an outlet for communication and a valuable resource in encouraging public understanding and collaboration. In fact, much needs to be done to educate and promote the agency and its programs to the communities of color and especially in languages other than English. In addition, I feel that MWRD has focused most of its attention in capital projects rather than being a leader in preservation.
Several decades of building grey infrastructure such as the Deep Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) shows us that we can never dig fast enough to stay ahead of the flooding problem. We need to take a One Water approach with a comprehensive look at all the natural and manmade water systems in the region and how they interact and are affected by a wide range of human actions and policies. Green infrastructure is an integral part of this approach. These are my thoughts when looking at the agency from the outside. I know that I will find many areas that need improvement once I'm elected.
Explain why you are qualified to be a commissioner and three specific initiatives you seek to accomplish during your term in office.
I have the credentials and work experience to understand the role of a Commissioner on the MWRD Board and how the Board should work in conjunction with the Administration to deliver a positive oversight of programming, strategies, and initiatives.
Throughout my career, I have worked with budgets, finances, law, legislation, community outreach, education, management and relationship building. I have honed my skills in these areas and am able to interpret documents and ask difficult questions regarding important topics and issues. I am able to bridge the communication gap with communities of color and can enhance such relationships. I am driven and a good listener who will seek the advice of others before making important decisions. This positive outlook helps me bring parties together to achieve consensus rather than division. In terms of my educational background, I attended Dartmouth College and Northwestern University School of Law. I am licensed to practice law in Illinois and Puerto Rico.
I have a vast work experience in the not-for profit and public sectors. I worked at the Chicago Park District which offered me the opportunity to learn about our parks and neighborhoods, how the environment affects public health and how we have to protect our resources, specially our water systems and our lake. I've also had leading management roles at the Illinois Office of Management and Budget, Office of Trade and Investment, and the Cook County Health & Hospitals System. I'm also extremely proud of my public interest law work at the Chicago Legal Clinic.
My priorities, once elected will be the following: Expansion of Marketing and Community Based Programming - Few citizens of Cook County understand the scope and work of the MWRD. I will work to change how the District communicates with our citizens by enhancing their outreach initiatives and bringing these to all communities across the County in a culturally appropriate manner. The District also needs to expand its programs with schools and offer mentorship programs to students and the workforce in general. Efficient, effective, and fiscally responsible waste water and storm water management - I plan to ensure that the District is ran in an efficient and fiscally responsible operation that has a solid and effective long-term strategic plan.
The MWRD should work with municipalities to identify and address issues in flood prone areas and implement new clean water technologies that both protect the environment and help the District deal with waste water. Protection of the Environment - I will be a leader to enhance, clean, and protect our water and our ecosystems which provide livelihood and health to our region. Special attention must be given to the Asian Carp situation as all levels of government must come together to prevent a catastrophic ecosystem disaster if the fish should enter Lake Michigan waters. In addition, at a time of environmental deregulation coming from Washington, we need an active MWRD to protect the environment and health of all the citizens in our region.
Does current MWRD policy sufficiently encourage the use of permeable paving and other tactics to conserve water, diminish flooding and enhance habitat? How, if at all, would you seek to improve the district's conservation policy?
The MWRD can do better. Green infrastructure should be approached at all scales — individual properties, neighborhoods, municipalities and regions/watersheds. With its wide geographic reach and engineering depth, the MWRD is ideally situated to be a leader on these issues. When elected, I will work with local governments and stakeholders with the strategy to improve water conservation, further reduce flooding, and sustain the physical and environmental integrity of our waterways. There are several steps that need to be taken: To improve and maintain the infrastructure we must prevent failure and enhance efficiency. Investing in water efficiency and conservation will lower the need to invest in expansion of infrastructure.
Built and natural environments are complex and often very large which can present difficulty in forecasting flood risk. The inclusion of groundwater characteristics, rainfall data, along with water quality and flow characteristics of surface water will prove more reliable than periodic testing to afford real-time, real-world data for a better response, planning and asset management decision-making. Innovative investment in green infrastructure to handle storm water, lessening the strain on gray infrastructure systems and the need to pour money in them while improving the quality of our land and waterways. Investments are necessary to make sure environmental problems such as lead pipes and compromised streams do not disproportionally affect poorer and minority populations across Cook County.
Do you favor or oppose separation of the Chicago/Des Plaines/Calumet river watershed from Lake Michigan? Why or why not?
Favor. I favor continuing the process that stems from the Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study of 2014. This study is not a final recommendation, rather it outlines several alternatives, some costing up to $18B, some less. Whichever alternative is pursued, it need not all be built or funded at one time, but in stages. The alternatives were developed through a process that included heavy public engagement.
According to the Army Corps, over 98 percent of public commenters expressed support for the idea of controlling aquatic nuisance species, despite concerns by many over the cost or effects on shipping (for instance) of specific alternatives, or concerns that there are other pathways for connection of the basins not addressed by the report. The report also outlines measures that could be taken for each alternative, to mitigate potential negative impacts on existing conditions such as water quality or flood risk, though it appears that negative impacts on materials shipping will result.
Separation of the watersheds is usually thought of in the context of sparing the Great Lakes from an invasion of Asian Carp species, which threaten the $4B fisheries industry there, and cause ecological harm as well as hurting tourism, among other issues. However, the threats to Illinois and Mississippi River waterways from other invasive species including non-native fish, plants, mussels, microscopic organisms and diseases, are arguably greater, and could also be helped by separation measures.
There is urgency to this issue, and I favor a robust short-term response, such as changes to behavior of boaters to make species transfer less likely, banning sale/import of invasive species, and fostering commercial uses of the carp. At the same time, the discussion of long term alternatives should proceed, with ample opportunity for input by all parties to participate.
Consideration should be given to measures that will have additional co-benefits in making our region more resilient. For instance additional progress in cleaning the water from MWRD treatment plants, will benefit the region whether or not that water is ultimately routed to Lake Michigan, and commercial uses of carp can provide jobs. While MWRD alone will not make this decision (and the majority funding will, and should be, national in nature) it must take a leadership role, and not to press for a more environmentally friendly solution would be to abdicate its role as guardian of the waterways.
Beyond whatever relief recent developments at the McCook quarry will deliver: What more, if anything, should the MWRD do to curb sewage overflows into the Chicago River and, at times, into Lake Michigan? If you propose additional actions, how would you pay for them?
Several decades of building grey infrastructure such as the Deep Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) shows us that we can never dig fast enough to stay ahead of the flooding problem. We need to take a One Water approach with a comprehensive look at all the natural and manmade water systems in the regions and how they interact and are affected by a wide range of human actions and policies. While not ruling out the expansion of reservoirs to widen water retention, green infrastructure is an integral part of the approach.
Green infrastructure contributes to the resilience of the region in the face of increasingly severe weather (locally severe events that overwhelm community infrastructure) due to climate disruption. Green infrastructure has a wealth of co-benefits for our communities; from places for recreation, habitats for native flora and fauna, air pollutant filtration, cleaning water that returns to streams and rivers, flood reduction, beautification, and groundwater recharge — just to name a few. It can also be cost effective per unit of storm water retention.
I believe that green infrastructure should be approached at all scales — individual properties, neighborhoods, municipalities and regions/watersheds. With its wide geographic reach and engineering depth, MWRD is ideally situated to be a leader on these issues. The rain barrel program, and the MWRD's partnership with organizations such as Openlands on turning asphalt schoolyards into green spaces, are good starts, but they are not enough as we need to consider green infrastructure beyond individual properties.
I would like to see the MWRD take a more comprehensive approach and do more projects like the comprehensive stormwater planning project it recently undertook with the Village of Robbins. This is also a great way for MWRD, with its strong tax base, to contribute to strengthening some of our underserved communities as well. Partnering with individual stake holders to help prevent sewer overflows and flooding by capturing and storing rainwater needs to be expanded with complimentary programs - Sustainable Backyard Program (SBP). Placing the burden of new or additional funding upon the backs of taxpayers is not the answer. The public would be better served with the increase in dollars available through existing programs as the EPA-Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF).
The CWSRF is a federal/state partnership providing communities low cost financing. Additionally, expanding the parameters of the Illinois Green Infrastructure Grant Program for Storm Water Management (IGIG) would provide additional dollars to pay for water infrastructure improvements. While much of the water infrastructure is municipally owned and not under the purview of the MWRD, the MWRD can play a role by providing technical assistance to municipalities, promoting model ordinances, and providing analytical services.
Given the extreme fragmentation of local governments in the MWRD area, MWRD should also think creatively about how it can work with coalitions of municipalities, to create area-wide plans, to bundle purchasing for economies of scale, to train and increase staff knowledge and capacity.
Does the MWRD have surplus land? If so, should it be sold for development, transferred to abutting municipalities, or conveyed to the Forest Preserve District for conservation? Explain.
There is no greater advocate for the protection of MWRD land holdings that the District itself. Green infrastructure, clean jobs, public access to recreation use are priorities of this agency. When elected, I will support only measures which continue to promote the protection of waterways and open land. There has been ongoing tension over the future of MWRD landholdings. Until I am more familiar with all of the landholdings I am not able to commit that any specific land should transfer ownership, but I definitely have an open mind on the issue. As MWRD Commissioner, I would think creatively about whether there are ways to allow community-centric uses of land without transferring the underlying title, if that did not prove feasible.
These include management agreements, conservation easements of specified terms, and changes in MWRD's management practices (such as creation and maintenance of native habitat). Given the disagreements, it might be a worthwhile approach to craft pilot programs.
Given its sizable budget and the huge contracts it awards, should the MWRD have a different oversight protocol? How would you propose improving oversight and ethics monitoring?
The District's mission is supported by a budget greater than 1 billion dollars. This governing agency outsizes many cities or towns in Illinois. With the enormous responsibility and cost involved to facilitate the Chicago's area wastewater and storm water management, it deserves independent oversight. The elected District board members have touted the idea on the campaign trail without any real-time effort in accomplishing independent oversight. When elected, I will ensure that an inspector general independent from the District is funded and legally empowered to have oversight over the District.