The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Bright Light On A Shadowy Agency: MWRD In The News Again

By JoshMogerman in News on May 16, 2010 4:15PM

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District logo
There might not be anything as un-sexy as water infrastructure. Which is probably why a year or two ago, you would probably have gotten blank stares if you had asked your neighbors about the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, a quasi-governmental agency responsible for dealing with the region’s water system. Despite its sizable budget, taxing powers, and massive impact throughout Chicagoland, MWRD has remained off of most people’s radar. But that has changed in a big way in 2010 as a series of high profile stories have shined a light in WWRD’s direction.

Perhaps most prominent has been the District’s role in the Asian carp controversy. MWRD was named in Michigan’s Supreme Court case, along with the State of Illinois and Army Corps of Engineers. The District manages the canals through which the dreaded Asian carp have been making their run (or swim?) on Lake Michigan. In fact, DNA tests show the fish may be looming near sluice gates by one of the District’s pumping stations in Wilmette.

Less in the news, but no less controversial is the fight over decontamination of the Chicago area waterways. MWRD is embroiled in a fight with the USEPA, Illinois EPA, and an assortment of NGOs over its practice of dumping filtered, but not decontaminated, effluent into the Chicago River from water treatment plants. The Chicago River is one of the only waterways in the country in which bacteria from human waste is dumped. The issue became the longest running battle in the history of the Illinois Pollution Board as MWRD spends millions to maintain its current practices in what it views as a manmade waterway not covered by the same legal requirements as natural rivers and streams.

Terry O’Brien, President of the elected board of commissioners that oversees MWRD (which is independent of the City of Chicago and Cook County), failed in his run for Cook County Board President this year.

And Friday, the Chicago News Cooperative added another chapter to the District’s story in the Chicago section of the New York Times with an investigation detailing high salaries and benefits at MWRD that are “a throwback to far better times.” The CNC article notes that District paychecks have grown by more than 30% in the last five years and the number of employees with six figure salaries has more than doubled in the same period. The taxpayer-funded agency has been accused of patronage activities in the past and the CNC article notes that one of the highest paid employees is the daughter of one of the elected commissioners who run the District. When asked about her pay, Donna McGowan-Watson, daughter of Commissioner Barbara J. McGowan, told CNC the high salaries are justified because:

“Sometimes they work on the weekends,” Ms. McGowan said. “None of our jobs are eight hours a day, five days a week.”

Interesting point, but we have to ask, who doesn’t work weekends or long hours these days?