The guardians of our wastewater | Bleader

Monday, February 1, 2010

The guardians of our wastewater

Posted By on 02.01.10 at 12:34 PM

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I witnessed an amazing sight a couple of days ago: a candidate for office jumping out of his seat and talking excitedly—to the point of shouting—about our aging wastewater system.

“Someone needs to talk about infrastructure!” proclaimed Wallace Davis III, who supervises sewer maintenance for the city’s water department. He pushed himself away from the table, where we were eating a late breakfast of catfish, cabbage, and mac 'n' cheese in the back of Wallace's Catfish Corner, a west-side institution owned by his father, former alderman Wallace Davis Jr. “Someone needs to talk about catch basins! Someone needs to protect our basements from flooding!”

It’s not the kind of speech that catapults people to the upper reaches of politics, but it made sense for Davis, one of nine Democrats, three Greens, and two Republicans running for the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago.

The once-obscure body has gained an increasing amount of attention, notoriety, and importance over the last few years.

In 2006 north-side environmentalist Debra Shore ran an independent campaign for the board that garnered more interest and excitement than every previous water rec election combined; it managed to thrust the district's job of treating the county’s wastewater into the middle of a broader set of discussions about environmental protection and climate change.

Over the next couple of years the district’s $1.6 billion annual budget and often old-school way of doing business—free cars and gas for everyone on the board! Get your favorite aldermanic sons and daughters hired for the summer!—reminded good-government types that waste and clout weren’t limited to the city, county, and state.

Plus, ambitious would-be politicians saw an opportunity to win elected office—any elected office—by pouring money into campaigns that were previously determined by party anointment.

The water rec contests in 2008 featured big spenders, clouted insiders, and accusations of greenwashing. When they were over, the incumbents all won.

This year, though, one incumbent is retiring, leaving an open seat. Another, Mariyana Spyropoulos, has only been on the board since Governor Pat Quinn appointed her to it last summer—after her father donated thousands of dollars to Democrats around Cook County (for details, click here and scroll down to "Family Affair"). Current commissioner Barbara McGowan is also up for reelection.

In addition, the district is in the middle of several critical environmental controversies. The biggest is a fight it’s waging with the state and environmental groups over whether it has to fully disinfect what it discharges into the Chicago River system. District officials, including board president Terry O’Brien, who’s running for county board president, say it’s too expensive to commit to. They’ve even gone so far as to claim that fully complying with Clean Water Act standards would hurt the environment by contributing to global warming.

Another debate has to do with how to handle the threat of the Asian carp, an invasive species that’s gobbling its way up the river system and threatening the Great Lakes.

On top of that, critics have said the board doesn’t do a good enough job of scrutinizing contracts or cutting waste, as evidenced by the commissioners’ car perk—a charge O’Brien and other commissioners reject.

Todd Connor, a management consultant and avowed Shore disciple, says he decided to run after sitting in on a board meeting last year. “They spent more time honoring an Eagle Scout for his water project than going over a bond deal.”

Connor notes that the district’s budget is larger than the CTA’s or the county health system’s. “The water reclamation district is where I think the next battle for reform can and should be fought.”

“I think the board is doing a decent job,” counters Kari Steele, a chemist who formerly worked for the district and, like Davis, is the child of a former alderman. But she says she’s running because the board needs some scientific expertise so it can move faster on issues like saving energy at its treatment plants. The district is one of the region’s biggest energy consumers.

Davis is one of the more impassioned and colorful characters stumping for any local office this year. He says he’s got tons of ideas for upgrading the district’s infrastructure to prevent flooding. “I go before the aldermen at the City Council every year at budget time to talk about what we’re doing at the city, and every year they all say, ‘Thank God for Wallace Davis III,’” he says. “Wallace Davis III is looking to serve.”

Voters in the primaries get to choose up to three candidates; you can read complete roundups of them here, here, and here.

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