Kari K. Steele

Candidate for MWRD Commissioners (6-year terms)

Candidate Q&A

Why do you want to be a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and why do you believe you are qualified to be a commissioner?

One of the best parts of my job as a Commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is the opportunity I have to interact and communicate with the public about the vital role this agency plays in the community. I would like to be re-elected so I can continue spreading awareness about climate change and addressing environmental injustices, sharing information about resources and opportunities in the water sector, and continue ensuring Cook County maintains a clean water environment. I believe I am qualified to be re-elected as a MWRD Commissioner because I have unique qualifications directly related to the MWRD; In addition to my time serving as President and Commissioner, I have served on the Public Building Commission and a trustee of the MWRD Retirement Fund. I am the only chemist serving on the board, and I am an environmentalist, and a licensed real estate broker – all of which give me a unique perspective as a Commissioner. I have experience working at the MWRD and the Department of Water Management as a water chemist.

During my ten years on the board of commissioners, I set out to help MWRD provide excellence in stormwater management, wastewater treatment, climate change accountability, and fiscal responsibility. While we have achieved that goal, the job remains unfinished, and the future uncertain. The escalating climatic change crisis poses challenges to stormwater management and wastewater treatment. Broader, turbulent economic conditions are challenging all federal, state, and local governing authorities’ ability to maintain fiscal responsibility. To counter these challenges, we need experienced, proven leaders on the Board of Commissioners at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. I am such a leader, and I have proven to the people of Cook County that I can meet these challenges head-on. That is why I deserve reelection to this office, and I would be honored to continue to protect the health and safety of the residents of Cook County while protecting and preserving our primary drinking water source Lake Michigan.

With rainstorms more frequent and severe, the Deep Tunnel system and the MWRD reservoirs fill up. As a result, it's sometimes necessary to release sewage overflows into waterways. What other strategies should the MWRD employ to reduce those sewage releases between now and when the fourth reservoir is finished in 2029?

Our office will continue to move the MWRD forward toward the goal of eliminating combined sewer overflows (CSOs) by increasing our advocacy for funding stormwater management projects (both green and grey infrastructure) across Cook County while educating stakeholders on the role that local infrastructure plays in ensuring that water can flow to MWRD pipes, facilities, and reservoirs. We will also continue to highlight the fact that CSOs have drastically decreased since Thornton Reservoir went online and continue to decrease every year as MWRD’s stormwater management projects increase. MWRD has eighty-five active stormwater projects across Cook County, and we are planning more local stormwater management projects to capture and store more rain where it falls during extreme rain events. This will provide secure water storage in our neighborhoods and communities and make it easier for water to travel through sewer lines to the MWRD. Finally, our office will utilize a multimedia public awareness campaign about CSOs and what individuals, organizations, and communities can do to prevent them.

How else can the MWRD improve conditions in area waterways to reduce the risk of public health threats for recreational swimmers, kayakers, boaters, etc.?

The Primary responsibility of the MWRD is to treat wastewater, and our treatment process removes about 95% of pollutants. The treated water we release into the waterways is actually cleaner than the water currently in the waterways. Our treatment process is directly connected to an increase in aquatic life, recreational activities, and water quality in the Chicago area waterways.

Our office can further improve conditions in the area waterways by having the MWRD skimmer boats go out to remove litter and debris more often -- several times a day if necessary. Additionally, we have a variety of options to report water blockages and litter in our waterways. We can also create a public awareness campaign to improve communication with/for communities close to the waterways.

Additionally, I support increasing real time water quality testing at additional sites in the area waterways. Our office was on the frontline to support a partnership with “Current” that launched H2NOW in 2021. H2NOW provides real time water quality testing in the Chicago River and has recently expanded their reach to the Calumet River for 2023. This real-time water quality monitoring system provides more data about changing conditions in regional waterways and assists in maintaining a clean water environment.

Do you think the MWRD does a good job of informing the public about sewage releases and the potential health risks?

Although CSOs decrease every year as MWRD’s stormwater management projects increase, we still experience events that require these releases. We are always working on additional ways to inform the public of when, how, and why CSO’s occur in our service area. Our strategy is to take a proactive communications approach, implementing a text and email notification system to inform residents of the occurrence. One of the areas I personally have focused on is helping educate residents on simple things they can do at home during extreme rain events to decrease the possibility of a CSO. We have a notification system set up called Overflow Action Day Alerts; this helps all of us do our part to fight the increased rainfall head on, like conserving water during rain events. Our office has also arranged for the City of Chicago to share our Overflow Action Day alerts through the Office of Emergency Management & Communications for increased public awareness. Once again, our strategy is to take a proactive communications approach regarding CSOs, community education, and flooding overall.

Do you think the MWRD does a good job informing the public about permeable paving, “green alleys,” rain barrels and other methods of reducing flooding?

Yes. Green infrastructure is a critical aspect of environmental protection and stormwater management, especially in communities with aging infrastructure. Green infrastructure, such as permeable pavement, rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens, and tree planting, helps to reduce the volume and velocity of stormwater runoff. Community involvement is crucial in implementing successful stormwater management efforts, like green infrastructure, and educating residents about the importance of limiting impervious surfaces. Adopting green infrastructure anytime we can is a winning strategy to fight the challenge we face with climate change. Therefore, promoting green infrastructure expansion across Cook County is a continuous effort for the MWRD. Green infrastructure not only helps manage stormwater but also provides additional benefits such as improved air quality, enhanced biodiversity, community engagement, and increased resilience to climate change. We require green infrastructure components in all of our public leases and encourage voluntary participation in our commercial leases to businesses. We reach out to all municipalities directly at least once a year to solicit green infrastructure projects. We share information on our website & social media sites and we host community events discussing green infrastructure. In addition, we share information about the importance of green infrastructure by promoting our programs like our Rain Barrel Program, the Restore the Canopy program, and Space to Grow. In summary, The MWRD takes a comprehensive and collaborative approach involving residents, local governments, businesses, and organizations when discussing green infrastructure for stormwater management. Prioritizing green infrastructure can play a significant role in preventing stormwater from overburdening existing systems and it contributes to the overall health and sustainability of water resources in the region.

Do you think the MWRD does a good job informing the public about conserving water during storms such as holding off on running the dishwasher, doing laundry, or taking shorter showers?

Yes, Yes, and we can always do better on informing the public about Overflow Action Days. Conserving water during extreme rain events is an easy task we all can do to address the challenges we face with climate change. The MWRD has a notification system in place to inform you when you should conserve water at home to help with stormwater management. I have made it a personal mission to spread awareness about Overflow Action Days and to talk to residents about water conservation and how our sewers work at every opportunity I get when I am out in communities across Cook County. When we declare it’s an Overflow Action Day, I personally share the information on social media explaining how water conservation at home will create space in sewer lines so the water leaving your house and the rainwater can reach the MWRD. In addition, I arranged for the City of Chicago department of emergency management to share our Overflow Action Day alerts to their audience as well. There is a challenge to get news outlets to talk about Overflow Action Days and there is a challenge to make wastewater and stormwater interesting, so we are planning a robust campaign this year to increase awareness about how residents can help reduce during these intense rain events.

Do you think the MWRD has a role in reducing contaminants like prescription drugs / pharmaceuticals and toxic chemicals like phosphates?

Yes, Yes, certainly, MWRD actively addresses the issue of contaminants, including prescription drugs and toxic chemicals, in our waterways. Notably, we recently commemorated a decade-long partnership with the Cook County Sheriff's office, a collaboration that has seen the installation of over 130 take-back receptacles across Cook County. This initiative, undertaken in conjunction with local governments, is a crucial step in curbing the presence of harmful substances in our water. An exciting development is the opportunity to expand and refine our Drug Take Back Program with the launch of a statewide initiative by the State of Illinois in 2022. Looking ahead, we anticipate the implementation of this program in the coming year, providing an inclusive and comprehensive approach to addressing the disposal of pharmaceuticals and hazardous substances. This underscores our commitment to environmental stewardship and public health, demonstrating the ongoing evolution and expansion of our initiatives to better serve the community. Also, MWRD has take-back receptacles at our treatment plants and we host a drop off day on national prescription drug take back day. Our office also connects with elected officials, faith leaders, community organizations and/or senior living facilities to host community events to “preserve our planet” where we provide information for constituents about our programs and provide recycling services, prescription drug takeback services and eco-friendly cleaning recipes. Collaborating with local community organizations allows us to make these vital services easily accessible to a broader demographic within the county.

Do you believe the MWRD has a role in preventing aquatic invasive species from entering the Chicago waterway system?

Yes, Yes, MWRD has a role to play in preventing aquatic invasive species, but it must be a shared investment from all levels of government. It was good to see the historic investment of $225 million by the federal government made to the Brandon Road Lock with the passage of the Investment and Jobs Act in 2021. The Brandon Road Project represents an innovative initiative for ecosystem restoration right here in the Great Lakes region. Its primary goal is to impede the transfer of aquatic nuisance species from the Illinois Waterway into the Great Lakes watershed. As a steward for our area’s clean drinking water supply, MWRD should continue to have input, provide expertise, and be actively involved in preventing invasive species in our waterways.

What specific water infrastructure projects or investments would you pursue if elected?

I would prioritize investments in green infrastructure projects to resolve stormwater management issues that impact areas and communities that have been consistently impacted by flooding. Many communities, including Cicero, the Southland, Chatham, and Austin, have been hit hard during intense rain events and need the investment to protect residents from repeated flooding. Additionally, I would create a Cook County local impact program that includes building green school yards, replacing concrete lots with semi-permeable pavements, and rain barrel installations. Finally, I would invest in a green infrastructure education and “Build Green” campaign.