Martin J. Durkan
Democratic candidate for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, 6-year term
Responses to our questions
Evaluate the current performance of the MWRD.
As of now the MWRD is being run effectively and efficiently by our dedicated staff. We have brought to completion our Thornton and McCook stage 1 reservoirs online, which were started decades ago. We have also made great strides in our forward thinking phosphorus recovery, as well as advancing our disinfection process. We are also making progress in reducing stormwater damage across the county by learning from a slate of pilot projects we undertook last year and applying those lessons to an increasing amount of projects this year. We have also maintained a stable financial footing with an AA+ and AAA rating from Standard and Poor's and Fitch respectively.
Explain why you are qualified to be a commissioner and three specific initiatives you seek to accomplish during your term in office.
I am qualified to be a commissioner because I have a unique combination of experience both in government and in the construction industry as an operator and small business owner.
The District's focus on large infrastructure projects means that I am in a position on the board to understand more of the purpose and necessity of certain projects and can ask the questions to our staff to make sure there is enough oversight of what they are doing. My experience as a business representative has allowed me to understand both the viewpoints of the worker, and those officials who are stewards of taxpayer money.
I will push the District to show tangible results in the area of stormwater management. Since 2014 the District has grown the amount we spend for stormwater prevention. In this years budget I advocated for an increase in the stormwater management fund and have seen the spending increase 40 percent in this area This will allow an increased amount of local projects we do with municipalities. We have only completed five pilot studies, but this year we are looking at entering into over 23 projects. I have also encouraged the District to continue to use this money to purchase homes in flood prone areas. This program pays fair market value to homeowners and restores those properties to natural flood plain.
I would also be an advocate for increasing infrastructure spending if that is what's necessary. Push for the expansion of gray water, or non-potable water. This is an area where the midwest has lagged behind the coasts, but gray water can bring cost savings to homeowners, and reduce the load on the District's system. I have worked with Commissioner Morita to establish connections with the relevant stakeholders. I hope to create more connections and intergovernmental agreements between the District and outside groups, whether they be governmental and elected officials, non-profits, or private partnerships.
Collaboration has become a key tool for government bodies recently and the District has been a leader in this area. Through my office we were able to work with the office of Alderman Michael Scott Jr. to get over 5,000 trees donated to the Oaks of North Lawndale, a Westside non-profit, that will work for the restoration of the canopy on the West Side. Other examples include the Space To Grow program which builds permeable playgrounds for underserved communities. We have also have come to an agreement with the town of Robbins for Midlothian Creek flood control, which will allow for larger positive economic change in the struggling town.
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?
I believe that the District has made great strides and has been sufficient in the area of water use as well as flood and environmental protection. I recently voted to pass our updated watershed management ordinance which both strengthened and clarified the way in which developments must include detention and sewer construction in order to get a permit from the District. This makes it so the largest contributors to water use help pay for those additions.
Also, as stated previously, I have worked with staff and other commissioners in looking at implementing a large scale greywater program that would greatly reduce water in the system as well as getting rid of the inefficiency of turning barely used water back to the level of drinking water. Currently we have gray water infrastructure for some industrial users such as Koppers Inc. and if these go according to plan then I will push for a large expansion of this program. I believe that the District could do more to encourage individual residents to reduce their water usage such as the Friends of the Chicago River's Overflow Action Days. I believe this should be done through outreach from both our Public Affairs department and commissioner's offices, and not enforcement.
Do you favor or oppose separation of the Chicago/Des Plaines/Calumet river watershed from Lake Michigan? Why or why not?
I think there are merits to both sides of this issue and at this point I believe simply that we should come to the correct decision. The idea of separating the watersheds from Lake Michigan has been gaining momentum in recent years. The Army Corps has stated that a hard barrier will cost over 18 billion dollars without advocating for or against the project. This is a cost that is out of reach for the District alone and I think it will be difficult to expect the Federal Government to take on those costs without stating the idea necessary.
I take the advice and recommendations of our professional staff very seriously and encouraged them to look into the matter. If they recommend reversal then I would likely support such a move. I believe, though, that this would be a momentous decision that would be impossible to change. Therefore I would look to make sure public health and drinking water were protected and that the environment does not suffer a serious negative impact. As the District was created to reverse the flow of the river, I do think that it would make a serious statement in how far conservation has come in the Chicago area if we do in fact separate the watersheds.
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?
The completion of the Thornton and McCook reservoirs has allowed a large increase in our water capacity and the addition of stage two of the McCook reservoir will have an even greater impact. It has become increasingly clear though that with the amount of large scale rain events lately, these additions will not be enough. I believe that we will still need to invest in large scale grey infrastructure projects. This will include adding more tunnels and possibly another reservoir to the TARP plan currently in place. I think that these projects need to be combined with green infrastructure projects because we have seen in our pilot studies that combining green/grey infrastructure increases the effectiveness of both and gives the District the maximum return on our investment.
The District can undertake these projects themselves in some areas, but in others they should look to work with local municipalities. The District has teamed up with several of them to stabilize their river and creek banks. The District has also worked to modernize local sewers by helping build and cover the costs for municipalities and should continue this practice. To pay for this the district should look to multiple sources. It should continue to try and attract State Revolving Loan Funds and state grants from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. I would also push our lobbyist to Washington to fight for more dollars to match our infrastructure spending. Lastly the District has strong bonding authority and is well situated to take advantage of its low interest rates now to invest for future benefit.
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.
I believe that District ownership of land is near an optimal level right now. The District has been buying up more land around its waterways in order to stabilize stream banks, protect natural floodplains and prevent flood damage which has allowed it to become one of the largest landowners in the county. I believe that this has been a success and the correct course to take and I will continue to advocate for this policy. The district makes use of this land by keeping it natural if necessary, or if possible granting leases that are appraised to fair market value. The district has been successful in either leasing out the land for development with generous lengths and rents or granting the land to local bodies for public use and this balance should be continued in the future.
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?
I believe that there are ways to improve the oversight of the District's awarding of contracts, but I do not think our system is flawed. When I came on the board I pushed for a reform to how our meetings are run and pushed for more individual oversight and responsibility for our committee chairmen. This will allow more accountability for voters to see what decisions we have made. One of the reasons that were are on the board is to provide the oversight for the taxpayers and ask questions that need to be asked and I take this part of my job as perhaps the most important. Even with these steps, our legal department has looked at creating an Inspector General and our board has discussed their recommendations. I would seriously consider the merits of the post and would likely support its addition.