A conversation with Josina Morita, Commissioner for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
Josina Morita was elected as Commissioner of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) in 2016. She is the first Asian American elected to a countywide board in Cook County. As an urban planner and policy advocate, she brings expertise in equity policy, land use, stormwater, and regional planning. She sits on the boards of Woods Fund Chicago, Delta Institute, and the National Blue Ribbon Commission for Onsite Non-Potable Water Systems. Commissioner Morita’s human rights and racial justice work has been recognized by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Japanese American Citizens League. She holds a BA in Sociology and International Race Relations from Pitzer College and a Master’s in Urban Planning and Public Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
This March, Commissioner Morita was recognized with WaterNow Alliance’s 3rd Annual Impact Award for her leadership in breaking down policy barriers to advance onsite non-potable systems for stormwater management. WaterNow caught up with Commissioner Morita about steps MWRD is taking to advance access to equitable, sustainable, and climate resilient water solutions in the Greater Chicago Area.
Why did you decide to run for Commissioner at MWRD in 2016?
I ran for a few reasons. First, I ran a nonprofit working on policy advocacy for over 10 years. Like many of us who do advocacy work, at a certain point I got frustrated dealing with people who didn’t understand or didn’t care about the issues and I thought, “I could do this”. Second, I’m an urban planner by training. Land use and stormwater management is part of my background and we’ve never had an urban planner on the MWRD Board in 135 years. I really wanted to bring that level of expertise to the agency. And lastly, there was a lot of enthusiasm in my community for an Asian American to run for a seat on the board and I was one of the more viable candidates that people got excited about.
What were your top priorities after taking office?
Coming from an organizing and policy background, I always thought MWRD had missed opportunities in a lot of ways. It had been an old school sanitary district. Only over the last two decades has MWRD really embraced its role in stormwater management and environmental stewardship. For me, the next step is to recognize that - as a $1.2 billion agency that invests a lot in infrastructure and jobs - we’re also an economic development agency and can be a driver for equity in the region.
Another priority is changing the fact that MWRD is the most important agency that nobody knows exists. I think that was by design for a long time, but it’s time to change that by engaging grassroots communities to spread the word about MWRD’s stormwater management work and environmental leadership.
Policy wise, my number one priority is water reuse. Coming from California, and growing up in drought conditions, for us to be such a water rich state that doesn’t take that level of responsibility about how we steward water was a really big issue for me. I think the opportunity to scale onsite non-potable systems in this region is really unique.”
Why do you think onsite non-potable systems are important, even in a city that has no shortage of water?
The idea that we’re water rich is largely a perception. We have a large water resource in our backyard, the Great Lakes, but sometimes we Chicagoans forget that we share this resource with surrounding states and Canada. The Great Lakes make up 90% of the United States’ freshwater supply and 20% of the world’s freshwater supply.
We have too much water in other respects. Onsite non-potable systems offer a solution to our stormwater challenges through green infrastructure, rainwater storage, stormwater storage, and treated effluent uses. The ability to capture water onsite across the County is really important because we can’t “tunnel” and “reservoir” ourselves out of this problem.
We’re currently building the Deep Tunnel but even when it’s completed - as one of the largest infrastructure projects in US history with two of the largest reservoirs in the world - total capacity will only cover the equivalent of half an inch of rain on the County surface. We have to look at other ways to capture water onsite to alleviate our stormwater and combined sewer capacity needs, whether it’s through green infrastructure or water reuse.
What progress has been made thus far in legalizing onsite non-potable systems in Illinois?
We introduced language to the Department of Public Health in early 2018, which the plumbing advisory committee approved. The Board of Public Health approved the language in October, 2018. Currently, the Department of Public Health is reviewing and responding to over 300 pages of public comments on the language. The next step is to post it into the Joint Rules Committee where they’ll have to vote yes or no within 365 days. A lot can happen between the public comment period and the Joint Rules Committee. I’m nervous about getting it posted in the Joint Rules Committee but once it’s posted I’m pretty optimistic.
MWRD is unique in looking at the opportunities that exist for treated effluent from industrial manufacturing and airports. Because of the unique location of our water treatment plant next to industrial corridors, it provides different opportunities to scale up onsite reuse. There’s a company adjacent to one of our treatment plants that has plans to use a million gallons of treated effluent per day instead of drinking water. Even if we just had three pilot projects like that we’d be saving a billion gallons of potable water per year.
How do you get community members and other stakeholders on-board with supporting onsite non-potable systems?
I think it’s about connecting this issue of water reuse to people’s lives. You have to understand different people’s interests. For a residential user, it might be their water bill. For people who are environmentally conscious, it’s their role as good stewards of water. For unions and businesses, it’s a way to create jobs and save money. And for cities dependent on only a few different sources of drinking water, it’s being able to alleviate the storage and treatment capacity they need and to build redundancy into their systems. There are a lot of ways to make the case for water reuse to different constituencies.
What are the water equity challenges facing low income and minority residents of the Greater Chicago Area?
There are all kinds of equity issues. Water affordability and access are major challenges in Chicago. I proposed a moratorium against water shut-off in the City of Chicago due to inability to pay. Studies show that it costs more to shut off someone’s water than it does to pay what they owe. And because of the extreme weather in Chicago, we don’t allow ComEd, our private energy utility, to shut off people’s heat during the winter. But our public water agencies allow water to be shut off, which is also a basic necessity.
Longer term, there’s the issue of water affordability and water rates that needs to be addressed in the City of Chicago and water access challenges in the south suburbs. Chicago is also an older city with old lead service lines that need to be replaced over time to protect the health and safety of residents.
For MWRD, the question of equity is largely about how we structure projects to address infrastructure and disinvestment issues in communities of color. We have a policy that largely funds projects that are “shovel ready.” However, most municipalities that need stormwater support the most don’t have the capacity to develop shovel ready projects. We need to figure out a more equitable approach to fund projects based on need and fill that gap by providing technical capacity and resources to help these communities develop their projects.
What’s the potential for green infrastructure to improve the quality of life for low-income residents?
We have an extensive green infrastructure program and recognize that we can’t “tunnel” and “reservoir” our way out of all our problems. Green infrastructure and onsite systems are an “all of the above” strategy for us. We’ve been able to create green alleys and rain gardens, and we’re developing a pilot to help residents do green infrastructure on their private property. One challenge we’re facing is that it’s one thing to install green infrastructure but it’s another help communities maintain it so we need to figure out way to do green infrastructure maintenance.
For the past two years, you’ve organized the Big Jump to highlight the progress that has been made to improve water quality in the Chicago River by convincing public officials to jump into the Chicago River. What is MWRD doing to improve water quality in the Chicago River?
100 years ago, MWRD dumped raw sewage directly into the Chicago River, so we’ve come a long way! Our most recent progress has been installing tertiary disinfection at the two plants that discharge directly into water ways. We’re piloting UV and chlorine disinfection so the water released back into the Chicago River is now 0.02% away from drinkable. It’s so clean that Chicago recently created its first effluent beer made from our treated wastewater.
We don’t have a tangible goal for making the Chicago River swimmable but parts of the river currently meet EPA standards for water contact and continuing to improve water quality will be a long-term process.
Has the Greater Chicago area been impacted by the effects of climate change on your stormwater system?
Yes, when we designed the Deep Tunnel almost 60 years ago it was intended to manage 100-year storms that occur every 100 years. Now we experience 100-year storms multiple times a year. The stormwater capacity needs that we planned for 60 years ago have changed dramatically. We had rain storms over the last few days that caused pretty significant flooding in certain areas. These are the areas that we’re prioritizing and targeting for localized stormwater projects.
Why do you think that sustainable water management in the Greater Chicago area is so important?
I think it’s important in the same ways that I think it’s important anywhere. Our public health and resiliency as a city and a region depend on it. Because we have combined sewer and stormwater systems, the public health risks are even greater. If we fail to manage our stormwater and sewer properly it not only ends up in our basements and backyards, it can back up into the Great Lakes and contaminate 90% of the US water supply.