Overflowing with chutzpah: Chicagoland's sewage treatment authority explains why it shouldn't have to clean up

 Have you heard the classic definition of “chutzpah,” a Yiddish word meaning audacity and gall?  According to Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, the word can best be understood as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan."

Chutzpah appears to be the strategy of choice for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District – the entity responsible for keeping sewage out of the Chicago River – in explaining why it can’t be expected do its job right.  As described in a “Notice of Intent to Sue” letter sent to the District last week by NRDC, the Sierra Club, and Prairie Rivers Network, the District has been trying to make the case before the Illinois Pollution Control Board that it should not be required to clean up its discharges, because the River is in too poor condition to be worth the effort.  Problem is, the witness testimony offered to the Board by the District – together with reports posted on its web site – show that the District itself is a big cause of the problem.  As explained by the New York Times and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Notice of Intent shows that the District’s “combined sewer overflows” – the mix of sewage and storm water that gets dumped into the River after every big rain – are causing levels of oxygen in the water (which fish need to breath) to crash to zero. 

At least you’ve got to give the District points for consistency.  It’s exactly the same chutzpah-driven argument that the District been using to explain why it shouldn’t have to disinfect the sewage effluent coming out of its treatment plants the way every other major city in the country does.  There’s no point in doing that, the District says, because its combined sewer overflows have made the River too much of a mess of germs to justify cleaning up the plants. 

And you’ve got to give it double points, because the District’s claimed lack of money to fix the problem is really kind of its own fault as well.  As reported by the Chicago News Cooperative, the District does not seem to have gotten the memo that we’re living in tough economic times, and has been paying “high salaries, big overtime checks and annual cash payouts for unused sick-leave days.”   The Coop reports that the paychecks of many district employees have risen by more than 30 percent in the past five years, outstripping the pace in other government agencies and the rate of inflation.  Sixteen of those employees will be paid more than Mayor Daley this year, and some top District staff receive tens of thousands of dollars a year more than their counterparts at City Hall or in other units of local government.  They’ve also managed to come up with the money to fly their staff to more than 100 seminars around the world in the last couple years, some in nose-to-the-grindstone environments like Las Vegas and the Greek Island of Naxos.  Oh, and did I mention the $650,000 no-bid contract for the District’s DC lobbyist?  And then there’s the more than $13 million the District has spent on fighting the IEPA’s proposals to require the District to clean up its discharges, rather than just spending that money to clean them up.   While it’s certainly true that keeping the River clean costs money, the District’s pleas of poverty ring a little hollow in the face of this level of drunken-sailor spending.

In keeping with this rather loose approach to management, the District’s Tunnel and Reservoir Project, which was supposed to fix the combined sewer overflow problem and has cost the taxpayers more than $3 billion to date, is mired in delay with no end in sight.  The District’s last round of permits said the project would be completed by 2015, but its new draft permits kicked that date back to 2024 – and the District’s presentation at the permit hearings kicked it back again to 2029.  Even that distant date is not any kind of enforceable commitment – the completion dates are in the permits for “informational purposes” only. 

And so the sewer overflows continue largely unabated – and cause a lot more problems beyond fish that can’t breathe (which is bad enough).  The sewer overflows are laden with pathogens that render the River dangerous for recreation after a rainstorm, and as well as the other sorts of things one would expect to find in raw sewage, which I will refrain from specifying in detail out of courtesy to those who may be reading this at lunchtime.

This is a fixable problem.  We know that because sewage districts around the country have fixed it.  Just here in Midwest, cities including Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Aurora, Illinois; Lenaxa, Kansas, and most recently Cleveland, Ohio, have committed to using natural systems such as wetlands and green roofs to reduce the frequency and severity of sewer overflows by keeping water out of the sewer system.  A recent report by NRDC called Re-Imaging the Chicago River shows that these natural systems – called green infrastructure – can be used to great benefit in Chicagoland.

And there is reason yet to hope that the District will not remain too hopelessly mired in spendthrift, excuse-driven management to adopt these sorts of solutions.  A new generation of commissioners has begun to take on the old-school management and push for more enlightened approaches (including last week’s successful motion to get rid of that no-bid lobbyist contract).  One can hope that their vision will ultimately prevail over the chutzpah contingent that’s running things now.