Commissioner Kimberly Du Buclet remembers being personally impacted by and connected to water issues from a young age. She has carried these early experiences into her current role at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), which provides wastewater treatment and stormwater management for approximately 10.35 million people each day in Cook County. WaterNow's Executive Director, Cynthia Koehler, spoke with the Commissioner about MWRD’s green infrastructure priorities and the critical role of community engagement and awareness around water issues. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve mentioned flooding is something you have personal experience with, growing up in Chicago. Can you share a bit more about your early connection to water issues and how that informs your work today?
I grew up on the southeast side of Chicago in a home that flooded nearly every time it rained. My family became accustomed to the smell and shoveling out sludge from our basement. We had to put all of our things on pallets, and quite often our items would get ruined because of the sludge. So that was my first encounter with flooding and water issues.
I used to go swimming in The Point in Lake Michigan. In high school my friends would say, “I can’t believe you’re swimming in Lake Michigan, your skin is going to fall off!” I remember thinking, we get our drinking water from there, it can’t be so bad that I can’t swim in it. These concerns were planted in my brain from a young age. When I became a state representative and caucused with the environmental caucus on issues related to Lake Michigan, that made me even more aware of water issues and spurred my professional interest.
What do you see as the key water challenges in Cook County?
One of the biggest challenges is climate change. We had the wettest May on record this year and saw increased flooding and combined sewer overflow days as a result. Improving water quality while keeping an eye on cost, and lack of funding for green infrastructure projects are also challenges.
What is the opportunity for green infrastructure (GI) to play a larger role in MWRD’s stormwater management? What’s been your experience with GI in your community?
Chicago mostly experiences flooding in developed areas where the water doesn’t have a place to go. This frequently occurs in communities of color that have suffered from decades of disinvestment in water infrastructure. GI helps control flooding by reducing the amount of stormwater that enters our sewers and waterways. We should invest in GI to store more water safely during storm events.
For example, take our Space to Grow program, which builds GI on playgrounds so water can percolate slowly into the soil. This is one way we’re working with communities to get the word out about GI and make a difference in these neighborhoods. The Board recently voted to look into expanding it outside of Chicago into our suburban communities.
As another example, we are developing 5 stormwater master plan pilot studies to identify solutions to flooding structures and basement backups, and evaluate potential green solutions. We’re prioritizing areas that experience more flooding than others and making a point to develop solutions alongside these neighborhoods. It’s imperative that we get community input as we do these projects.
MWRD has run a Green Infrastructure Partnership Opportunity Program since 2014, which funds dozens of GI projects (rain gardens, permeable pavement systems, and more) in partnership with communities. The record of success so far is impressive: 5 million gallons of stormwater runoff storage to over 1,400 benefiting structures. What are the next steps and goals for this program going forward?
A priority is finding funding for new GI projects as well as maintaining existing projects. Building them is one thing, but communities that need GI projects often don’t have the money to maintain them. We need to look outside the box for funding opportunities and partnerships because we can’t solve these problems on our own. But public education and the actual effectiveness of these projects have been important to the ongoing success.
In 5 or 10 years, what does success look like in addressing Cook County’s stormwater challenges? What would make you look back and think “we really made an impact”?
A greater capacity for local governments to reduce flooding in their areas would be an example of impact. Spurring more economic development would also show impact, because not many people want to build a business or home in an area that’s prone to flooding. So if we can mitigate that and build more business participation and investment, I think that’s a longer term way of looking at how this work can help, for black and brown communities in particular.
What are you most proud of these days?
I’m proud to have helped amend the watershed management ordinance along with my co-chair, which will regulate sewer construction to prevent developments from making flooding and water quality problems worse. I’m proud of working on a climate action plan for MWRD, a first for us, and our continued GI programs, as well as our outreach across the county to students and community members.
Most people in the county have no idea what MWRD does and how important our work is to daily life. It’s important to me to get out and meet people and talk about what we can all do to help. For example, explaining not to flush flushable wipes down the toilet, or that you can help keep unnecessary water out of the system during a rainstorm by not showering, or running your dishwasher or washing machine—very simple and direct outreach.
You’re really talking about how to communicate with the public, which is something we spend a lot of time on at WaterNow. Utilities tend to be underground just like their infrastructure, and communities simply expect waste to be flushed away or water to come on when you turn on the tap. You exemplify a new generation of leaders who believe in the importance of communicating with the public about their infrastructure.
We need extensive community outreach and education. I like to take on that role as an ambassador for the environment and also for what we do at MWRD, because most people don’t know just how important our work is. We’re trying to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem and the need for other agencies and the public to work collaboratively to find solutions for flooding.
I think it’s part of my job as Commissioner to do this public outreach. People drive down I-55 and don’t realize one of the largest waste management plants in the world sits right there, and that Lake Michigan provides 70 percent of freshwater supply in the US. We need people to understand how important these resources are.
To learn more about the initiatives mentioned here, visit mwrd.org