From The Editor | January 5, 2016

The Chicago Way: Windy City Water Boss Addresses Top Threats, Solutions


By Kevin Westerling,

In many ways, Chicago is a tough act to follow — a world-class city of both great renown and infamy. The latter may engender thoughts of mobsters and political machinations, but when it comes to water, ‘the Chicago way’ is a model of achievement and leadership to be admired.

David St. Pierre could be called the godfather of Chicago water, but I’m sure he prefers his proper title, which is executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD). In this capacity, he guides the operations of Chicago’s seven wastewater treatment facilities, including the world’s largest, the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant. His influence is felt far beyond his home turf, however, in that he’s an ambassador, practitioner, and expert in matters concerned with “Utilities of the Future” — a key aspect of which is resource recovery.

St. Pierre is optimistic and enthusiastic about the future of the water/wastewater industry, but he acknowledges obstacles that need to be addressed in order to maintain current (extremely high) standards and to thrive moving forward. In the following series of questions, I asked St. Pierre about the issues that most threaten the environment and public prosperity, as well as the solutions available to keep his and other utilities from falling victim to these threats.

What are the biggest concerns facing our waterways, and what steps are necessary to surmount them?

Certainly as we learn more, we discover more.  On the horizon are issues such as pharmaceuticals in the water that are being studied.  Microbeads are another example of an emerging contaminant.  Climate change is huge...

However, I believe the biggest threat to Chicago’s waterways and our nation’s waterways is our current utility structure.  The current structure of local utilities that deliver water and clean used water has created tremendous advances in our society — in other words, it has been extremely successful.

In today’s world, this local paradigm will not be sufficient to solve water management problems.  Water spans multiple states and regions.  To successfully manage all issues, water will need to be managed proactively from a much larger perspective than local need.  This generation needs to wrestle with the issue of a Clean Water Act/Initiative for the 21st century that can adapt and manage our water needs moving into the future.

What has Chicago and MWRD done to improve resiliency and protect against climate change impact?

MWRD is a catalyst within the region promoting resilient development through partnerships and clarity.  MWRD is providing a resilient plan for all 125 communities served in Cook County.  Working with these local communities and providing partnerships is mobilizing leaders in these villages to act.  We launched over 80 projects in the past four years.  Half include partnerships.  Resilience to water issues and climate change touch every sector of our society.  Every sector must be engaged to meet this challenge.  There is an African proverb that states “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  We need to meet the challenge of resiliency against climate change impact together.  MWRD is facilitating this effort.

What role do public-private partnerships play in the evolution of utilities, and do you anticipate or endorse growth in that area?

Public-private partnerships [or “P3s”] are difficult in the water sector.  Most models are truly private interests taking over operational management.  Community costs remain essentially the same in these scenarios.  MWRD has several P3 partnerships in play.  Several are centered around resource recovery initiatives.  The phosphorus recovery [project] has an offtake contract with a private partner.  A food-to-energy project also has a private offtake partner.  These relationships make the projects possible.  The District is exploring a model that will use real estate value and redevelopment potential to attract private developer investment in recreating infrastructure.  I do believe this concept will grow over time.  The right opportunities and models need to be created and demonstrated to allow growth; this will grow.

What approach does MWRD use to treat and recover nutrients?

The District is currently implementing biological phosphorus removal at four of our seven facilities.  We are exploring algae process removal at one of our large facilities and evaluating options at the two remaining plants.

Our strategy of biological removal allows for recovery of phosphorus.  Our world as a whole has to determine how to retain, recover, and reuse valuable resources.  Phosphorus is at the top of this list.  Supplies are being used up and this nutrient is critical for agriculture food production.  The District is starting up the largest phosphorus recovery facility in the world this February, 2016.

Is cybersecurity part of the utility resilience effort? Should it be?

Welcome to the 21st century, right?  Every information technology department does their best to deal with the issue of cybersecurity.  It is important for utility IT groups to stay up to date on these issues and do the best they can to address security.  The wastewater side of water is not a very high target.  Being aware of community issues, staying involved in emergency and disaster agencies within cities and states, and making sure that we know how to activate emergency forces, these are the important measures every agency should take.

What trends or movements would you like to see gain momentum for the sake of the industry?

The concept presented as the “Utility of the Future” is a trend that is growing.  I believe this idea is a seed that will be as disruptive and positive to the water sector as Apple has been to the technology sector.  It is an exciting time to be involved in the industry.  It will be fun to watch what recovery technologies will come forward in the days ahead.

The preceding is part of an ongoing series of Q&A sessions with leaders of the water/wastewater industry. See my previous conversation with Harold Neukrug, commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department, and stay tuned for more in the months to come.