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NRDC Files Suit against the Water Reclamation District: Time for the District to Become Part of the Solution, Not the Problem

Ann Alexander

Posted May 3, 2011 in Curbing Pollution

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NRDC and its coalition partners filed a lawsuit today demanding that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District stop polluting the Chicago River and start protecting it.   As described in our 60-day notice letter filed in March (and in my previous post), the lawsuit seeks an order requiring the District to clean up its discharges of raw sewage combined with stormwater, and to stop polluting the river with algae-fueling phosphorus – problems that are being addressed successfully in other cities.

It is no secret that Chicago’s water infrastructure is in bad shape.  As I and others here at NRDC have described before, the Water Reclamation District operates a combined system that sends both raw sewage and stormwater runoff to its treatment plants through the same pipes – which works just fine until we get a rainstorm, at which point the system can’t handle the volume and has to dump the combined mess right into the River.    The District has thus far spent more than $3 billion to try to fix the problem, but has little to show for it save vague, unenforceable assurances that it might be done by 2029.  The phosphorus discharges, meanwhile, are fueling noxious algae blooms downriver, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The District has been negotiating for nearly a decade with US EPA and the US Department of Justice over a possible settlement requiring cleanup of the CSO problem.  We have heard through back channels that they may be close to inking a deal, although we haven’t actually seen a draft. 

raingarden4.JPGIf US EPA and the Justice Department have done their job right, then this could be a verypositive development.   A recent settlement between US EPA and Cleveland highlights what can be accomplished.  The Cleveland settlement appropriately uses “green infrastructure” as a critical part of the solution for combined sewer overflows.    In short, green infrastructure means using natural systems, like street trees, native plants and wetlands, to keep stormwater from even entering the sewage system to begin with.  The idea is to capture rain drops where they fall, naturally filtering the rain before it makes its way to sewers, rivers and streams – as opposed to traditional “gray infrastructure,” which collects stormwater and treats it at a great cost in dollars and energy.  Some of the more popular and useful green infrastructure solutions include rooftop plantings, or “green roofs”; permeable pavement; and streetside planting strips, or “bioswales”  -- all of which not only address stormwater  volume and pollutants, but create additional benefits for communities -- including natural cooling and beautifying neighborhood streets and commercial corridors.   Green infrastructure even saves utilities like the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District money, because less water flowing into its pipes means less water that needs to be cleaned and pumped.   Seattle, WA has invested heavily in green infrastructure and reduced stormwater runoff by as much as 99 percent. 

Green roof4.JPGIt’s hard to imagine why US EPA and the Justice Department would not require green infrastructure as a centerpiece of any settlement with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District as well.  Especially since US EPA just put out guidance detailing the incorporation of green infrastructure into settlements nationwide.   Certainly Chicago is no less deserving of modern green solutions than Cleveland.  NRDC recently completed a study, called “Re-Envisioning the Chicago River,” that highlights the great potential of green solutions to our problems with overstressed sewage infrastructure throughout Chicagoland. 

A settlement without green infrastructure front and center would solve almost nothing.  It would be essentially an endorsement of a failed system, which $3 billion in taxpayers’ money for gray infrastructure has not fixed. 

We remain hopeful that federal regulators will come forward with green infrastructure solutions to force the District to become part of the solution, not the problem.  But until and unless they step up, we are proceeding with our lawsuit.

 

Rain garden photo courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities

Green roof photo courtesy of Roofscapes, Inc.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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