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ELECTIONS 2018 Water Reclamation, Debra Shore discusses plans during a third term
by Sydney Boles

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Debra Shore has served on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District MWRD board since 2006. She is a member of the Illinois Women's Institute for Leadership and served on the board ( and was past chair ) of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. She is running for her third six-year term in the 2018 election.

Windy City Times: What changes have you ushered in during your twelve years in this position?

Debra Shore: I've had a hand in a number of major initiatives. Almost nothing gets done by a single member of our board, and there's little I can point to that only I have done—though there may be a couple of things. I certainly have been the most ardent conservation advocate.

Last year I worked for eight months on a measure that was adopted unanimously by the Cook County Board to expand safe, secure collection sites for people to dispose of their unused or expired medicine so they don't flush it down the toilet, but also so medicines don't accumulate at home, where they become a risk to seniors or young adults.

I've also been a part of moving this agency from being a waste treatment to being a resource recovery agency.

WCT: What do you mean by waste treatment and resource recovery?

DS: The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District was established in 1889 to protect the drinking supply for Chicago by keeping sewage out of the Lake Michigan. At that time, people were dumping all manner of human, animal and industrial waste directly into the Chicago River, which flowed into Lake Michigan. People were getting sick from water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

The agency decided to reverse the Chicago River, build the North Shore Channel and the Cal-Sag Channel, and create a massive public works project to move sewage away from the lake.

For most of its history, up until a dozen years ago, the MWRD mostly treated sewage. But in late 2004, it got authority for storm water management for all of Cook County.

What's happened in the last six or seven years, though, is the recognition that the things we used to consider waste have real value. We're in the process of trying to capture and monetize that value for taxpayers.

One resource is nutrients. The water and solid waste flowing into our sewage plants have a lot of nutrients in them, principally phosphorous and nitrogen. Phosphorous is essential for food to grow, but in waterways it causes algae to grow. Too much algae sucks up all the oxygen in a waterway, leaving none for fish and other aquatic life and creating dead zones. The MWRD is going to be able to capture that phosphorous before it's discharged into the Chicago waterways and turn it into non-soluble phosphorous crystals that can be sold to a commercial fertilizer blender and then to farmers.

Another resource is human waste. We're now mixing treated biosolids with woodchips from the City of Chicago's forestry waste and producing a high-quality compost that we can sell to landscapers.

We also have a project to increase the biogas we're producing. Part of the waste treatment process generates methane, which we use to heat our anaerobic digesters and some of our facilities. By increasing the amount of methane we produce, we can capture some on the back end and either feed it back into the natural gas pipeline or produce compressed natural gas that can be used to fuel Pace buses or truck fleets.

The fourth piece of resource recovery is water itself. Every day, the City of Chicago withdraws 800-900 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan, filters it, treats it and sends it to our homes and businesses, where we use it once. And then we treat it and discharge it into the Chicago waterways, and it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. We ought to be able to use that water more than once. We're looking for water-intensive industries close to our treatment plants that could use our treated water instead of our drinking water.

Looking into the future, as water quality and water supply become more fractious issues elsewhere, the fact that we have a ready source of dependable, available water can attract the water-intensive industries of the future and help us grow our economy.

WCT: How progressive is the MWRD, compared to similar agencies in other cities?

DS: The National Association of Clean Water Agencies a few years ago put together a report that describes wastewater utilities as resource recovery agencies. That's the model. I would say not that many clean water agencies have yet embarked on this path, although a few have. San Francisco's way ahead of us in terms of using food waste to generate electricity.

But there's a real incentive to be second, rather than first. When you're working with water, people ingest what you produce, unlike electricity. You have to be careful, so we're conscious of using new technologies that haven't been proven to work at scale. That said, I think we're doing a lot of innovative things and I'm really excited about it.

WCT: Environmental pollution doesn't affect us all equally. Does your work consider the way race and class impact communities' access to clean water?

DS: I'll give you an example. The Water Reclamation District opened a sewage treatment plant on the Far South Side in the late 1920s or early 1930s when the area was very remote. Later, the Chicago Housing Authority built a public housing complex across the street from the sewage treatment plant, so those residents have had to deal with odors at times.

Our agency wasn't the one that positioned the sewage plant near an economically challenged community; the housing authority put that housing project near us. We didn't engineer that environmental justice issue, but we need to be part of the solution. So we're working on odor management solutions.

We are certainly looking to do more in terms of our construction contracts and our storm water projects to employ locals if we can. We're looking to collaborate with trades unions to train more women and minorities. And if we were to attract industry to use our treated water, they'd have to come to areas close to plants, which would provide jobs and grow that local economy.

WCT: What are you looking to get done in the next six years?

DS: I'm running together with two of my incumbent colleagues, Commissioner Kari Steele and Commissioner Martin Durkan. I certainly hope voters will consider supporting not only me, but my colleagues as well. There's also a vacancy created by the resignation of a colleague two years ago, and Kim DuBuclet is running for that slot. She would be a strong asset to this board.

One major effort is increasing our ability to handle heavier rainfall, which is an effect of climate change in our area. We need to be better able to process storm water so it doesn't overwhelm our sewers and cause flooding in people's homes.

I'm also helping establish an independent inspector general to keep us accountable. We have a billion-dollar budget, hundreds of millions in construction contracts every year. And we're an agency populated by human beings, so an inspector general would be an important measure of additional oversight. I was able to secure funding in next year's budget so that if it's the will of our board to establish an office, we will have the resources there to get going in 2018.

WCT: Was there a specific issue or incident that led you to believe an inspector general would be necessary?

DS: I don't believe our agency is fraught; we're well run. But we're probably one of the only agencies with a budget of our size that doesn't have one. It's considered a good government practice. Inspectors general help save money because the see ways to be efficient, and we certainly can benefit from that.

WCT: You were the first openly gay person elected in Cook County who wasn't a judge, and you include that in your biography. Why is it important to have out LGBTQ people in public office?

DS: After I was elected but before I was sworn in, I met with the general superintendent of the Water Reclamation District at the time, and I said, "Do you think we could extend health benefits to domestic partners of district employees?" And he said yes. I said, "Well, wait until I get sworn in, because I want to vote for it." So after I was sworn in, our board voted unanimously to extend those benefits, not only to same-sex partners but also to opposite-sex domestic partners of district employees.

In the first sign-up period, three same-sex couples and seven opposite-sex couples signed up. I asked the general superintendent why hadn't they done this sooner. And he said, "Nobody asked."

My point is, when we are present, we ask. Recently, we introduced a measure before the Illinois General Assembly—and Gov. Rauner signed it into law—that allowed retirees to confer pension survivor benefits to long-standing partners even if they weren't married. It may matter to only a handful of people, but it matters hugely to those it impacts.

WCT: What can be done to convince more LGBTQ people to run for office?

DS: We have to ask them to run. We have to train them to run. And we have to support them when they run. We have to support them financially, open our networks and our contact lists.

When I was a candidate, I went through the candidate training program at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute, and then when on to serve on their board. I would encourage any LGBT person considering running for office to go through the program.

WCT: Who are you endorsing in the governor's race?

DS: I'm supporting Daniel Biss. He's my state senator; I've known him a long time. I think he's the most qualified, whip-smart and will help grow the party.

WCT: Will you run again in 2024 if you win this next election?

DS: This will be my last time running for this job. There are a few more things I want to get done, but it's important to make way for ducklings. I don't aspire to hold other elected office. There might be a couple of federal appointed positions I might be interested in, but I don't know if the opportunity will arise.

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