BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
What is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Greater Chicago, and why is it important to me?
The MWRD plays a major role in treating wastewater, reducing flooding (increasingly important as Illinois’ climate becomes wetter due to global climate change), and reducing the amount of stormwater (which collects and transports animal waste, garbage, pesticides, fertilizers, oil, road salt, oil, grease, and other potential pollutants) into Lake Michigan. The district serves an area of 872 square miles, which includes the city of Chicago and 125 suburban communities.
Because of the importance of clean water and the protection of our beautiful lake and all the Great Lakes, residents of our area deserve qualified board members with expertise in and a strong track record of protecting the environment.
Cam Davis perfectly matches this criteria. If you care about protecting the environment, and are interested in local environmental issues, you’re probably already familiar with this strong advocate for the environment. But if you’re not, let me tell you a little more about him.
Cam Davis served as President Obama’s “Great Lakes Czar” from 2009 until 2017, as well as served as the President’s liaison to Congress for the Great Lakes. In addition, Davis is the past-president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. I could list more of his credentials, but why not hear directly from him. Cam was kind enough to talk with me about the work of the MWRD, his goals if reelected, what we can do to protect the environment, and other environmental-related topics.
Q. The MWRD plays an important role in protecting Chicago’s water and the environment as a whole, but many Chicagoans and suburbanites aren’t aware of its work. What’s the mission of the MWRD and what are your duties as a commissioner?
A. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District plays a tremendous role for public health in the Chicago metro region. And its mission has become even more important in the face of the Trump administration’s public health protection rollbacks.
The mission of MWRD is to protect the health and safety of the public, protect Lake Michigan water quality, improve water quality in watercourses, and protect communities from flood damage.
The Board of Commissioners sets the policy and budgetary direction of the agency. With a $1.1 billion annual budget and nearly 2,000 committed staffers, it has a huge presence even if the public doesn’t think about it every day.
Q. Can you tell me about your goal of making Chicago the “green infrastructure capital of the world?”
A. We can’t build enough hard infrastructure—pumps, plants, and pipes—and maintain it financially over time to address the more intense rain we seem to be getting with climate change. So we have to start thinking about our region’s landscape as infrastructure. How can we make our landscape work better to filter out pollution before it hits our waterways? How can we make our landscape absorb more floodwater? Green infrastructure means restoring property so that it helps accomplish these things and provide relief to our traditional infrastructure. We should bring more green infrastructure per capita to the Chicago region than any other metro area in the world. We have the smarts and capacity to do it.
Q. If reelected, what are your goals for the new term?
A. Did you know that we as MWRD taxpayers pay some $40 million in energy bills and we mostly rely on coal, gas, and nuclear energy? Burning coal and gas for fuel contributes to climate change and air pollution. So, we’re actually paying to pollute our air and put future generations at risk. That doesn’t make sense. As commissioner, I’m working to pivot MWRD toward more reliance on renewable (e.g., solar, wind) and recoverable (e.g., biogas from our waste streams) sources of energy. And that will bring our energy bills down in the long run, too. People can learn more at https://camdavis.org.
Q. A lot of people realize that global climate change, pollution from manufacturing, microplastics, etc. are causing serious damage to the environment and healthy living, but they feel helpless to make a difference. What are a few simple and more involved ways to make a difference regarding the environment?
A. This is such a great and optimistic question. We as environmentalists have to be optimists because there is a lot we can do to take control of our fate. My wife, kids, and I do a lot of things around the house to help:
- We ripped up the grass on our parkway and planted native plants. It reduces watering, and watering our lawns and flower beds accounts for almost a third of home water use.
- I had solar installed about a year and a half ago. About a third of the project is reimbursed through a federal tax credit, about a third as a payment from the state, and we paid for a third. The project pays for itself in about seven years, but the solar panels have a warranty of 25 years. My kids think the system is really cool and one of my neighbors was so enthralled with what we were doing that he had solar installed a few months after we did. So solar has a great ripple effect—socially, educationally, and financially.
- We are at war against plastic in my house. We try not to buy stuff with plastic wrap. And, because plastic is unfortunately almost unavoidable in our society, we bag up (yes, in plastic) our plastic wrap, caps, and other plastic material and either take it back to the grocery store or our local school to be recycled. As a result, we’re throwing out virtually no plastic.
- Join an organization. If you feel overwhelmed, there are lots of great organizations to help you bond with others for positive reinforcement and action. For example, when I was CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, we started the Adopt-a-Beach® program to give people a way to pick up, record, and fight trash.
- MWRD’s Public Affairs office does a supersized (and sometimes under-appreciated) job of providing ideas and resources. Check out https://mwrd.org/education.
Q. What are a few of your favorite nature destinations in the area?
A. In the warmer months, I bike to work downtown and back along the lakefront bike trail. If I’m going to spend 45 minutes commuting, why not get exercise, fight climate change by reducing my carbon output, and clear my head (before I have to load it back up again with something else)?
I love the forest preserves. We’re so lucky to have them and I often think about how my fellow commissioner, Debra Shore, helped found Friends of the Forest Preserves.
What I’m profoundly appreciative of is our lakefront. I’ve been advocating for our Great Lakes for more than a third of a century and I’m always stunned by it. And I’m stunned that I continue to be stunned by it. That’s how magical it is to me, especially when I run along it and take my kids to the beach. #
I want to thank Cam for talking with me about the importance of protecting the environment, the MWRD, and his goals for his next term. I’m glad that such a qualified individual is already protecting our water resources in Chicagoland as a MWRD board member, and I will gladly vote to reelect him to the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago on March 17, 2020. I hope that you’ll consider voting for him, too.
Copyright (text, except interview text) Andrew Morkes
Davis holds copyright to his image and interview text.
2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
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Finally, my book, They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition, provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. Click on the title to read the table of contents, the introduction, and a sample chapter.
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