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World Toilet Day Has a Different Meaning in Chicago

Henry Henderson

Posted November 20, 2012

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Lonely Toilet photo by Sune P via Flickr

There is more than one important holiday this week. Monday was World Toilet Day.

Reading this in the relatively developed world, especially in the relatively clean and sterile world of modern America, we might be tempted to stifle a tiny chuckle before moving on to seemingly bigger things.

But consider this: the contamination of water is one of the fastest growing threats to life as we know it on this planet. And a significant part of that water contamination comes from human sewage, contributed by lack of adequate (or even, any) toilet systems that plague a HUGE number of cities, villages, hamlets, settlements and homes. The reality of inadequate sewage systems and inaccessibility to adequate and safe toilets is a devastating limitation for human life and dignity, as well as the health of the planet.

Consider that in many countries, the lack of toilets makes education of women impossible, because lack of private toilets in large swaths of the developing world, with impacts on democracy, quality of life, equity, infant mortality and tragic suffering. That is nothing to laugh at.

World Toilet Day casts a light on this Global reality, as well as the ready availability of an infrastructural fix.

And here in Chicago, we should take note. After all, we sit on the throne of what might be the biggest leaking WC in the United States.

Since we reversed the flow of the Chicago River more than a century ago, Lake Michigan creates the tank that flushes our waste thousands of miles away into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a massive system, that turned two of the biggest and most important fresh water systems in the western hemisphere into mere plumbing and one of the world’s most productive fisheries into a giant septic tank, since our…ummm…nutrients are one of the biggest single contributors to the Gulf Dead Zone. But it does not have to be that way. 

Steps have begun to lessen the burden. Chicago’s regional water authority, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), made the historic decision (with the nudge of lawsuits and looming implications of legal wins from NRDC and a coalition of like-minded groups) to end the practice of dumping “undisinfected effluent” into the Chicago River from their treatment plants. That sewage, rife with bacterial human waste, currently makes up to 70% of the flow in parts of the waterway system. The commitment to disinfect the sewage is the right thing to do.

There is more to be done. NRDC, Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers are suing MWRD to do something about that nutrient flow from their water treatment plants, which acts like fertilizer in the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to grow algae and feed the expanding Dead Zone in the Gulf. (NRDC is also representing the Mississippi River Collaborative in a suit against the EPA over nonenforcement of similar issues throughout the watershed). And the combined storm water and sanitary sewers that dump filth into the system every time we get an inch and a half of rain require significant action from both the City of Chicago and the MWRD. Because of these shortcomings in our sewer system, homes flood with waste, the Chicago, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers flow with sewage, the Great Lakes are threatened, and the Gulf of Mexico is host to an area the size of Connecticut that is uninhabitable for most sea life.

While we celebrate the civilizing influence of indoor plumbing on International Toilet Day, there is nothing civil about the Greater Chicago Region dumping intestinal miasma on our southward neighbors… We should not need a holiday highlighting the serious needs of the Third World to highlight the imperative to fix the plumbing of a glorious World Class city. Here in Chicago, that is no laughing matter either.


Lonely Toilet image by Sune Petersen via Flickr

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Michael BerndtsonNov 21 2012 10:19 AM

Excellent. Just make sure a solution is well thought out and the hidden agenda of NRDC is NOT to privatize MWRD. There are several drivers here that are separate from the wastewater treatment NPDES problem: Asian carp, wealthy home owners along Lake Michigan and western suburbs outside the Lake Michigan watershed.

Addressing the Asian carp may have a seemingly rather simple solution like cutting off the Chicago River from Lake Michigan. Addressing wealthy lake front home owners would be to cut off all man made diversions so lake level doesn't recede too much in front of their homes. The western suburbs maybe the most screwed given the fact that the groundwater is being tapped out and there is limitations on how much Lake Michigan water can be pumped to them. Sadly, the second issue may drive any or all action taken - given political clout. Ironically many of the wealthy folks I know complaining about water level issue don't think climate change is a real thing - its only a water budget/balance problem.

My main concern is that the entire Chicago wastewater system started under the pollution control concept of "the solution to pollution is dilution" starting over 100 years ago under the "make no small plans" era of Danial Burnham. And continued throughout the go-go era of political patronage under Daley the First - "make no plan that doesn't include family friendly engineering and consulting firms and operating engineers and plumbers locals. " And don't even get me started on the deep tunnel.

About privatization. I'm sure the interest of NRDC is purely the defense of natural resources, which is noble. However, the board president of NRDC and other backers are affiliated with huge water/wastewater engineering and consulting firms like AECOM, URS and CH2M-Hill. These firms are truly brilliant and house the smartest and most gifted engineers on the planet (not to mention ingenious sales and marketing). They also don't make money on simple low capital and operational solutions. And there's a big infrastructure privatization effort going on in Chicago - given the fact there's no money. I believe Clinton has some sort of infrastructure initiative starting that isn't privatization per se, but does include private equity.

Josh MogermanNov 21 2012 11:14 AM


NRDC is not angling for privatization of water infrastructure. Here is a blog post Henry posted back in 2009 when the Daley administration floated the idea of privatization of drinking water:

While you are commenting on a different system, the same concepts apply. There is no hidden agenda here. These are vexing issues and NRDC sees MWRD as an important player in getting them right, not a body that needs to be removed from the equation.

Michael BerndtsonNov 21 2012 02:01 PM

Josh, I apologize for the slightly snarky and blatantly accusatory comment above. It's just that this NPDES problem is huge and won't simply involve adding a bit more ozone or chlorine for a fix (if that is incorrect please let me know). Compounding the problem is the possibility of reducing flow through the Sanitation and Shipping Canal by cutting off the added dilution from Lake Michigan. I'm all for upgrading wastewater treatment systems throughout Chicago and the US - the problem is that there is no interest in funding capital improvements from congress. We came very close this election to losing the EPA - where much of its budget goes to water treatment capital for improvements.

The issue of privatization I have is based equally on paranoia and reality. Its a thing in Chicago that has happened and will continue to happen. It simply gives me the willies as a utility rate payer - revenues will go towards making the investment sound - rather then making sure water flows down hill nicely. And most cynically, capital improvement may be made prior to privatization - making the asset more attractive to investors - on the backs of tax dollars and rate payers.

Lastly, I floated away from the environmental biz several years ago thinking it was in good hands. Only to see a billboard by Heartland Institute this past spring of Charles Manson claiming to be a climate change believer or something to that effect. That was on the Ike right at my exit. My reaction was pretty much what the - . So I put my OCD back into overdrive to investigate this new world of environmental protection only to discover actors and players I never heard of. One specifically is the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I'm sure the motives are pure - but they seem to have a mission to move the environmental protection world to the "right". NRDC has a great reputation and I've slowly been getting up to speed on its mission and fully support issues it takes on. Sorry for being accusatory and thanks for your forthright and informative reply.

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