Environmental Groups and MWRD Agree on Plan to Clean up Chicago Waterways

Prairie Rivers Network and Partners Settle Lawsuits against Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

By Kim Knowles

In a win for Chicago’s rivers, Prairie Rivers Network, Illinois Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have reached an important settlement with MWRD in the federal lawsuit we brought against the District for violating its Clean Water Act permits. We brought the federal suit because the District was not doing enough to remove the pollutant phosphorus at three of its largest sewage treatment plants. As a result, that pollution ended up in Chicago’s waters and in downstream waters like the Des Plaines River, the Illinois River and eventually, the Gulf of Mexico. Although phosphorus is an important nutrient, there is far too much of it wreaking havoc on many of our nation’s waters. Phosphorus pollution fuels an overabundance of algae, leaving us with noxious, foul smelling, and sometimes toxic algal blooms. What’s more, when the algae dies and decomposes, bacteria consume available oxygen, creating low dissolved-oxygen zones that threaten the health of fish and other animals. An important way to address these water quality problems is through improved sewage treatment.

North Branch Chicago River. Photo credit: © Jeremy Atherton, 2006.

In a second parallel suit, Prairie Rivers Network and partners Illinois Sierra Club, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Chicago River, and Gulf Restoration Network sued the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for issuing Clean Water Act permits to the District that were far too lenient in restricting phosphorus discharges to Chicago waterways.

In resolving both suits, the settlement sets a course to advanced sewage treatment at Chicago’s biggest plants, and to healthier waterways.   

How so?

First, the agreement requires the establishment of a Nutrient Oversight Committee that will hire and oversee scientists and engineers charged with developing a cleanup plan to remove phosphorus-related water quality problems. The plan will identify a limit on the amount of phosphorus MWRD can discharge, and an implementation plan for meeting that limit.

Second, the development of the cleanup plan will necessarily take some time. In order to ensure that not too much time passes without any progress, the agreement calls for an interim phosphorus limit (.5 mg/L) that MWRD must meet by 2030.

Third, MWRD will conduct water quality monitoring in the Lower Des Plaines River near Joliet where the worst algae problems are most evident. This information will be vital to developing Clean Water Act permit limits.

Fourth, Illinois EPA will conduct water quality monitoring at three locations on the Illinois River where algal problems are most intense: Peoria Pool, Marseilles Pool and Starved Rock Pool. This data is extremely important to a clearer understanding of phosphorus pollution in the Illinois River watershed, and will assist in identifying controls on other phosphorus sources in the watershed.

Finally, there is an important first step that must happen, and we’re counting on it happening soon. The good folks at IEPA must include the terms we’ve agreed upon in MWRD’s permits.  It is at that time that the terms of the agreement will take effect. We trust they will do so.

Godspeed and Congratulations to all! We look forward to cleaner, healthier waterways in Chicago and beyond!

1/9/2018 Update: Here is the settlement agreement and release.