The District to the MWRD: A history of protecting our water environment

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) has been improving the environment and protecting public health since its inception as the Sanitary District of Chicago in 1889. While operations expanded and missions evolved, the MWRD is proudly delivering the same excellent service that protects the public health and environment and promotes a thriving economy. The work of the MWRD continues to evolve and benefit the planet, but the Chicago region was in dire need for its services when the District was formed.

There was a sense of urgency creating a sanitary district due to a booming population, the fear of waterborne illness, the quality of the drinking water supply in Lake Michigan and a contaminated river. The Sanitary District’s first assignment was clear: reverse the flow of the river. To accomplish this herculean task, they had to construct a vast network of waterways. However, two previous attempts to create the District through legislation in the Illinois General Assembly were stalled over concerns of discharging wastewater downstream.

A special commission consisting of Chicago Mayor John Roche, two members of the Illinois House and two members of the Illinois Senate were appointed to gather public opinion and then buy-in for another round of legislation. The committee proposed constructing a canal wide enough to accommodate steamboat traffic, satisfying downstate interests. The chance to promote economic development linking the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico ultimately persuaded the rest of the state to adopt legislation. On May 29, 1889, the General Assembly approved “the Act to Create Sanitary Districts and to Remove Obstructions in the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers.”

The Enabling Act required a referendum establishing the boundaries of the District, roughly covering 185 square miles from the lakefront west to Harlem Avenue and from Devon Avenue on the north to 87th Street on the south. The District’s services were in so much demand that the residents living in the proposed area voted in a landslide 70,958 to 242 in favor of its creation.

From 1955 through 1988, the District was called The Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago. In order to provide a more accurate perception of the District’s current functions and responsibilities, the name was changed effective January 1, 1989, to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

The vision: Reversing the flow and creating a network of waterways

Proposing a river reversal is one challenge, but actually delivering it is an altogether different story of determination, toil, strife and labor, and the MWRD followed through on that promise. The MWRD reversed the Chicago River in 1900 by constructing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to take wastewater away from Lake Michigan to send downstream, thus protecting the source of the region’s drinking water. The water was discharged to the Des Plaines River, where it could be diluted as it flowed into the Illinois River and eventually the Mississippi River. The Sanitary and Ship Canal was so successful that two more canals were built. In 1910, the North Shore Channel was completed to provide drainage to the marshy areas north of the city and to direct lake water into the North Branch of the Chicago River for dilution. The Cal-Sag Channel was ready for operation in 1922, which also was the year the first treatment plant of the Sanitary District of Chicago was finished. The Cal-Sag Channel reversed the Calumet Rivers. In total, the MWRD constructed 61.3 miles of canals and waterway improvements.

Protecting and improving: The MWRD constructs intercepting sewers and water reclamation plants to produce clean water

As the District established the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS), water treatment technology was advancing, leading to the creation of treatment plants and interceptor sewers that conveyed water from local collection systems to the plants for treatment. The MWRD constructed 560 miles of intercepting sewers and force mains ranging in size from 6 inches to 27 feet in diameter. The intercepting sewers are fed by approximately 10,000 local sewer system connections, and are critical in managing stormwater and preserving the waterways.

The MWRD built the Calumet Sewage Treatment Plant in 1922, and six additional water reclamation plants (WRPs) were built soon thereafter, one of which is the world’s largest, the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant. The MWRD also constructed 22 pumping stations.

Regulating what enters the drains to ensure cleaner water for all

Ahead of the federal government’s Clean Water Act in 1972, which implemented pollution control programs and wastewater standards for industry, the MWRD Board of Trustees adopted the Sewage and Waste Control Ordinance on Sept. 18, 1969. The ordinance, which has since been amended, sought to protect the public health and safety by abating and preventing pollution through the regulation and control of the quantity and quality of sewage, industrial wastes and other wastes discharged into the sewage systems, MWRD water reclamation plants and waters under the jurisdiction of the MWRD.

On Oct. 4, 1979, the MWRD Board of Commissioners adopted the User Charge Ordinance. The ordinance established an orderly and fair system so that the operations, maintenance, and replacement costs incurred by the MWRD in treating and disposing of the sewage, industrial wastes and other wastes generated by each user is charged for their use of the sewage collection and treatment facilities of the MWRD in compliance with federal regulations. Administering the Pretreatment and User Charge Programs, the MWRD’s Monitoring & Research Department works diligently to protect the quality of the water environment and also generates an important revenue stream from large commercial/industrial users and tax exempt users of the sewage system and the costs of administering the MWRD’s Pretreatment and User Charge Programs. Projected 2018 User Charge revenue is $46 million.

Today, the MWRD treats an average of 1.3 billion gallons of water each day, and the MWRD’s total water treatment capacity is over 2 billion gallons per day. The MWRD also controls 76.1 miles of navigable waterways, which are part of the inland waterway system connecting the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico. It also owns and operates 34 stormwater detention reservoirs to provide regional stormwater flood damage reduction.

Another layer of protection: The Deep Tunnel

In 1972, the MWRD started making plans to create the MWRD’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), one of the country’s largest public works projects for pollution and flood control. Three reservoirs today are in operation, in addition to 109 miles of tunnels that hold rainwater mixed with used water during storm events. It covers the 375-mile combined sewer area, which includes Chicago and 51 suburbs, and provides 20.55 billion gallons of storage capacity, allowing the WRPs a chance to keep up during heavy rain events.

A likely match: The MWRD proves a credible stormwater authority

In 2004, the Illinois General Assembly granted authority to the MWRD to manage stormwater for Cook County. While stormwater management did indeed bring the MWRD above ground and into people’s homes and businesses unlike wastewater treatment from pipes below, it became an effort to mitigate flooding and an opportunity to improve area water quality. The MWRD further put its skills in practice in 2013 when the MWRD Board of Commissioners approved the Cook County Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO). The WMO provides uniform stormwater management regulations for Cook County in order to prevent future commercial, municipal, and residential development and redevelopment projects from exacerbating flooding.

Empower the people: The MWRD emboldens the public with green infrastructure solutions.

In addition to TARP, the MWRD currently has more than 120 stormwater management projects in design or construction. MWRD’s stormwater proj­ects incorporate elements of both gray and green infrastructure, ranging in size between massive res­ervoirs to green alleys and permeable parking lots. Green infrastructure mimics the natural environ­ment by handling precipitation where it falls by de­taining and infiltrating runoff through rain gardens, permeable pavement, cisterns and other practices. By letting water slowly filter into the ground, this relieves some of the stress on old combined sew­er systems. Other projects include improving Chi­cago schoolyards to better manage water through a partnership known as Space to Grow, acquiring flood prone properties to take homes out of the flood plain and relieve struggling homeowners, and distributing more than 130,000 rain barrels and nearly 50,000 free oak tree saplings to offset the regional loss soak up stormwater, while also offset­ting the regional loss of ash trees.

Improving stormwater management and develop­ing new technology at water reclamation plants has led to cleaner area waterways. The MWRD creat­ed a pre-treatment program to control water en­tering the plant for treatment and now controls what is leaving the plant through new disinfection technologies that include chlorination/dechlorination at Calumet WRP and UV disinfection at the O’Brien WRP. A testament to the improvements in water quality in the CAWS is swimming below the surface. The number of fish species has shown a steady increase following the implementation of the TARP and Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration stations. The number of fish species found in the CAWS has drastically increased since the 1970s when monitoring of the fish population first began. From 10 known species in 1974, that number has increased to 76, including 59 that have been found in the CAWS since 2000. Decreases in ammonia levels and increases in dissolved oxygen levels have proven to be essential factors for aquatic life, while TARP has also cut the amount of combined sewer overflows in half, leading to less polluted water and healthier homes for fish along the CAWS.

Recovering Resources, Transforming Water

Since its inception, the MWRD has worked to improve the environment and protect public health, but the way it views its work has evolved over 129 years. Sewage is no longer a waste product, but instead a collection of resources to be recovered and reused. The MWRD is implementing several innovations in renewable energy, while also recovering and developing reuse opportunities for water, biosolids, algae, phosphorus and other nutrients collected during the water treatment process. Each of the seven plants has made strides in helping the MWRD meet its goal of developing a resource recovery model that provides a sustainable return to both taxpayers and the environment. Through these opportunities, the MWRD will add value in traditional and non-traditional ways, while protecting the region’s water quality. The MWRD has also become a proactive agency that prides itself on many partnerships and collaborative efforts to improve the quality of life throughout Cook County. Through its culture of excellence, collaboration, innovation and work that extends beyond traditional water management, the MWRD was honored as a “Utility of the Future.”

What began as an attempt to solve water quality issues and protect the source of drinking water, has led to a transformation in area water quality. Local water quality has improved through the hard work of many MWRD staff to a point never before imagined, and the nation’s environment is also benefiting as a result of many MWRD initiatives. As the MWRD enters its 130th year, there will be new chapters to write, more water to protect and more hard work to come, but thanks to the precedent laid by past MWRD workers, there is great pride and a sense of commitment for today’s staff to carry on that legacy for future generations relying on a quality water environment.

MWRD Timeline