What Is the MWRD? You Have Questions, We Have Answers

(Patty Wetli / WTTW News)(Patty Wetli / WTTW News)

Of all the governmental entities a voter might encounter on a ballot, the MWRD is arguably the one people interact with the most — multiple times per day, whether they realize it or not — yet understand the least.

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Let's pull back the curtain.

What does MWRD stand for?

MWRD is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (so technically an even bigger tongue-twister — MWRDGC). 

It was formed in 1889 as the Sanitary District of Chicago, after winning the approval of 99% of voters. The name has evolved over time, as the district's mission has expanded in scope and geography. It now serves some 5 million people over an 882-square-mile area.  

What does the MWRD do?

The district's first order of business back in the 1800s was to figure out a way to reverse the Chicago River and thereby keep the city's sewage out of Lake Michigan, aka, Chicago's source of drinking water. 

Today, MWRD treats wastewater — an average of 1.3 billion gallons a day — and manages stormwater for the city of Chicago and 128 suburban communities in Cook County. 

So every time a person flushes a toilet, runs a load of laundry or dishes, or goes scrub-a-dub-dub, that's the MWRD on the receiving end of the wastewater. The water gets carried through sewers to one of the district's seven treatment plants and is then released back into area waterways, eventually making its way down to the Gulf of Mexico. 

If the specter of cholera loomed large over the district's early priorities, today it's concerns are about things like "forever chemicals," which are proving nearly impossible to scrub from wastewater. And the stormwater half of the equation is requiring more and more attention.

Does MWRD supply drinking water?

Nope. That's a separate entity (in Chicago, it would be the Department of Water Management) and different pipes.

But ... plenty of cities not blessed with a freshwater source like Lake Michigan on their doorstep are having to consider options like pumping treated wastewater into their aquifers.

Let's pause here and thank a glacier for the Great Lakes.

What does any of this have to do with the Deep Tunnel?

A section of the MWRD's Deep Tunnel. (Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago / Facebook)A section of the MWRD's Deep Tunnel. (Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago / Facebook)

Deep Tunnel is the nickname for MWRD's Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP). The project, proposed 50 years ago and still under construction, addresses the stormwater side of the district's mission, with a goal to reduce flooding and improve water quality. 

Here's why it's needed: The Chicago region operates on what's known as a combined sewer system, meaning wastewater and rainwater (or snow melt) funnel into the same pipes and mingle on their way to MWRD's treatment plants. As more of the region has been paved over, sewers have handled an increasing amount of runoff.

During intense rains, the water entering storm drains overwhelms this combined system, leading to flooded streets, basement backups and the release of raw sewage into the region's rivers and streams. Those releases are called combined sewer overflows and the polluted water has a devastating impact on the health of waterways and their ecosystems.

According to MWRD's own reports, these overflows once occurred as frequently as 100 days a year. During the most severe storms, raw sewage has even been released into Lake Michigan.

Deep Tunnel tackles this problem through a network of, well, deep tunnels and massive reservoirs, which hold untreated water during these intense events.

Following a 2011 settlement with the EPA, Department of Justice and state of Illinois, MWRD has been held to a strict schedule to complete TARP and reduce the number of combined sewer overflows (which are tracked and posted online). 

Even with the increased capacity provided by Deep Tunnel, extreme storms still tax the system, which climate change is expected to exacerbate. To supplement the "gray" infrastructure of TARP, MWRD has promoted green solutions to absorb more rain where it falls including rain barrels, rain gardens and native plantings, and projects like Space to Grow, in which school playgrounds are designed with permeable surfaces to capture stormwater. 

But wait, there's more.

The reversal of the Chicago River was accomplished through the creation of channels and canals called the Chicago Area Waterway System. MWRD controls these navigable waterways, totaling 76.1 miles, and the associated dams, locks and port facilities.

MWRD has also amassed quite the waterfront real estate portfolio, having acquired property to construct the aforementioned channels and canals. In the process, it became the second largest landowner in Cook County.

The district leases a sizable amount of this property to both private and public entities, including hundreds of acres to the Chicago Park District and Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Leases range in length from 30 to 100 years, the latter typical of many Park District agreements.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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