Marcelino Garcia

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?

I am running for re-election as MWRD Commissioner because for the past 5 years, I have delivered a positive oversight of programming, strategies, and initiatives at the agency. Throughout my career, I have worked with budgets, finances, law, legislation, community outreach, education, management, and relationship building. Particularly, in the area of public health and well-being. I am able to bridge the communication gap communities of color and can enhance such relationships with others. I am driven and a good listener who will seek the advice of others before making important decisions that affect everyone. This positive outlook helped me bring parties together to achieve consensus rather than division.

During my first term, I was twice elected by my colleagues to be the Chair of Finance. In addition, I co-led the Strategic Plan process with former Commissioner Debra Shore. The 2021-2025 Plan has already produced a climate action plan, environmental justice policy, Strategic Plan dashboard, and credit rating upgrades. In 2024, the MWRD will also advance its work to study carbon management, emerging contaminants, energy neutrality and nutrient reductions, with $13.6 million invested to support Plan goals and initiatives.

My advocacy on several projects and policies led to many accomplishments and firsts for the MWRD. I want to continue shaping future policy that addresses climate change and its impacts on MWRD operations and the communities we serve through the recently adopted $1.4 billion balanced budget which invests in infrastructure modernization, new technology, and further investment in green stormwater infrastructure.

I remain committed to ensuring that diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice remain central tenants of MWRD’s business practices. My actions and policy ideas underscore my firm commitment to bringing resources to communities and people to ensure their economic, environmental, and public health well-being.

In terms of my education background, I attended Dartmouth College where I obtained a degree in Government. I came to Chicago in 1994 to attend Northwestern University School of Law. I graduated and passed the Illinois Bar in 1997 and since then I have had a long career in public service, working for governmental institutions or public interest law firms. I started my career at the Chicago Legal Clinic working to help our citizen’s deal with domestic relations, family law, immigration, bankruptcy and real estate legal matters. I worked at their office located in South Chicago, Pilsen, and West Town. It was a rewarding experience as I positively affected people’s life at a time of distraught or anxiety. After working at CLC, in the year 2000, I started working as a Legislative Liaison at the Chicago Park District. My four years at the District offered me the opportunity to learn about our city through the eyes of our parks and neighborhoods. It was there that I learned of how the environment affects public health and how we have to protect our resources, specially our water systems and our lake.

In 2003, I got the opportunity to work in Springfield at the State of Illinois Budget Office where I worked as the Director of Operations and had an impact on all areas of State government ranging from procurement, to hiring, to policy and operations. Through this job, I worked with the Departments on the hiring of frontline workers and trades to ensure that operations were not compromised. My team and I also worked on several versions of capital bills to ensure that state construction moves forward. In 2006, after the Budget Office, I worked at DCEO’s office of Trade and Investment where I helped our companies expand their export base by seeking opportunities with international clients. I also worked on international deals to bring new company operations to the State. In 2008, I was recruited to work on the International Relations team of Chicago 2016 to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. Although the venture was not successful, it was in line with my vision to promote the image of Chicago to the international audience.

After Chicago 2016, I started a small consulting firm called Overseas Strategies in which my partners and I help international companies look for opportunities in the United States. I also had a small stint at City College of Chicago where I worked in Springfield on lobbying initiatives and programs with the Illinois Community College Board. I am now at the height of my career working as the Director of Community Affairs at the Cook County Health & Hospitals System where I work to expand our population base and to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare. I believe that making sure that people are healthy and health care is a right to everyone in society.

I am fluent in English and Spanish and with a working knowledge of French, Portuguese, and Italian. In addition to supporting my political causes, I enjoy to ski, swim, bike, cook, and exchange ideas with people of all cultures and backgrounds.

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?

Planning, designing, and building green stormwater infrastructure is another critical strategy to reducing sewage releases because it allows water to be captured where it falls, preventing it from entering the water infrastructure system. MWRD has led a variety of green initiatives over the last several decades that have reduced its sewer overflows by 85% in the last 35 years. Green Infrastructure should be approached at all scales, from individual rain gardens to shared green alleys. GI encompasses individual properties, neighborhoods, municipalities, and regions. MWRD also participates in several watershed council groups which help inform priorities for infrastructure, stormwater, and water quality concerns.

If re-elected, I will continue focusing on expanding Green Stormwater Infrastructure projects and funding. The flooding emergencies our communities experienced in 2023 will reoccur, which is why MWRD must continue to build on partnerships, explore funding strategies to leverage the most amount of dollars, and provide support for municipalities who rely on interagency communication and resources to prioritize their environmental needs.

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

MWRD has many partners to fulfill its mission of protecting the waterways. As more people use the Chicago Area Waterways for recreation, The Chicago Harbor Safety Committee, brings together stakeholders/users of the waterways to ensure safety. I am the only MWRD Commissioner that actively participates on this Committee. Other agency partners include - U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Chicago Fire and Marine Safety Units. Multi-agency and multi-partner coordination provides a sound strategy for protecting the waterways from public health hazards and identifying areas for improvement. MWRD’s public notification hotline to report pollution is also a useful tool that should be utilized and promoted more.

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

Yes, Yes and there’s always room to improve our performance informing the public. I’ve also observed a rise in water literacy from residents and businesses in Cook County. I believe it’s a combination of MWRD’s significant contributions protecting the water environment, and increased media coverage of flooding disasters. Images of a flooded Chicago Riverwalk with debris floating ashore are strong reminders of water quality contamination and overflows. More people realize now that our water issues come from an abundance and not in the form of a drought. I have worked diligently with MWRD to create practical and informative outreach pieces, doing my part by creating videos in Spanish. MWRD can also support other water quality dashboards such as the Chicago Park District beach closures alerts system and Current H2O’s water quality monitoring system which conducts real-time sampling with MWRD’s assistance. MWRD also started its first Community Partnership Advisory Council which serves to provide further outreach directly into the communities.

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, MWRD’s current range of programs such as Space to Grow, the discounted rain barrel distribution program, Green Infrastructure Partnership Program, and Flood-Prone Property Acquisition Program have all received lots of positive attention. And, with Board approval, I’m happy to see that MWRD is expanding with the Suburban Green Schoolyard program in 2024. Green Infrastructure should be approached at all scales, from individual rain gardens to shared green alleys. GI encompasses individual properties, neighborhoods, municipalities, and regions. With the goal of making these program more understandable and accessible, MWRD recently updated its website so that residents and potential partners can understand the benefits, requirements, and process. My office has reached out to schools and municipalities in anticipation of the next Green Infrastructure Partnership Program deadline and if re-elected, I will continue to promote educational events.

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, Water conservation was one of MWRD’s primary messages in 2023. Unfortunately, it came out of necessity from the flooding emergencies that summer. But, MWRD was prepared due to its existing partnership with Friends of the Chicago River’s Overflow Action Day Alerts. It is a simple call-to-action for residents and business to reduce their water usage that had been in regular use for the past four years. MWRD ramped up its messaging, provided consistent alerts to the general public, and is now issuing alerts via text in addition to their social media platforms. Media outlets and meteorologists are catching on to the usefulness of these alerts. Ideally, the goal is that water conservation alerts will be a part of our daily news routine.

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

Yes, As Commissioner, I have consistently advocated for developing new technologies and innovative solutions to reduce or eliminate contaminants at our treatment facilities. MWRD has to adapt to how we view nutrient recovery, carbon reduction, and solids removal from wastewater. In a groundbreaking year of research and innovation at MWRD (2023), MWRD and its partners received an official United States patent to remove dissolved solids from wastewater as part of a unique algae recovery system in 2023. I am excited to see the continuation of this research in further pilots at our reclamation plants and that the treatment designed will be specific and relevant. As always, I believe in waterways literacy and will continue to push for education and outreach materials/communications for the public, highlighting our Pharmaceuticals Take Back program. MWRD should continue to develop outreach programs and inform the public on how to properly dispose of chemicals, pollutants, and emerging contaminants.

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

Yes, To protect the health of the waterways and its habitat, the MWRD does need to stay involved with the lead agencies and other stakeholders. MWRD’s advancements in water treatment operations, the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), and other initiatives have improved water quality that it is has helped initiative a resurgence in recreation and aquatic life through a growing number of fish species and habitats. Our ecologically productive waterways have seen aquatic invasive species number drop, and MWRD should continue ensuring such protections.

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

I want to pursue projects that offer multiple solutions to climate change impacts. The first is building on MWRD’s most recent project - a brownfield restoration in Little Village that will remediate a 4.5 acre lot into a recreational space with public access. These improvements will mitigate flooding, help improve air quality, and improve wellbeing for residents. This project is in partnership with two community groups in the Little Village community, including Mi Villita Neighbors and the Little Village Community Council. MWRD is also working with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Ohio State University, the Chicago Department of Public Health, and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. My goal is to identify more more parcels that can dramatically turn around a community. Secondly, while much of the water infrastructure is municipally owned and not under the purview of the MWRD, the MWRD can still play a role. In 2023, MWRD negotiated intergovernmental agreements with nine municipalities for participation in the Forging Resilient Communities program, and MWRD applied for US EPA grant funding whereby $1.5 mil in federal dollars went towards the inspection of 34 miles of intercepting sewers and rehabilitation of 813 linear feet of intercepting sewers. These types of projects help relieve communities from the flaws of an aging manmade water systems. Lastly, I am also focusing on how MWRD can be a contributor to reduce power and water consumption in the region. I asked the MWRD to explore the potential applications of water reuse in its service area. It requires conducting a market analysis. The rise of data centers and warehouses that generative AI products such as ChatGPT and the increase in water consumption that is required to cool these facilities is significant. MWRD has to be prepared to calculate the environmental impact. We need to be innovative, creative, and bring in members from the community who may otherwise not see the opportunities that lie ahead from innovative projects and investments with the MWRD.