The Beverly Review:

Stickney WRP Aerial
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago Monitoring and Research Department is currently collecting samples from six water reclamation plants to support studies on sewage surveillance monitoring for COVID-19 and tracking its spread in the Chicago area.


The year 2020 presented many unprecedented challenges for the nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly arrived like a raging storm. Many people, families and businesses around the world were required to make necessary adjustments to their personal, professional and leisure lifestyles to stay healthy and stay alive. Government officials and health experts were identifying the source of COVID-19 and learning how to control, maintain and eliminate its threat to the health and safety of the nation.

Prior to and during this time, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) continued to work strategically and diligently to continue its essential mission to protect our most valued resource, water.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 occurred during a time when the MWRD was actively completing various Cook County stormwater management projects to mitigate flooding, monitoring industrial waste, collecting and analyzing water samples, in addition to reviewing contracts and bids from various municipalities, villages, government agencies and community partners for new stormwater projects across its 882-square-mile Cook County service area.

The MWRD is an internationally recognized leader in wastewater treatment and stormwater management and treats an average of 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater each day via its seven water reclamation plants (WRP).

“This was an unprecedented and horrific time in our history, and our staff pushed forward and proved they were willing to remain diligent to fulfill our mission,” said MWRD President Kari K. Steele.

Steele was elected to the board of commissioners in 2012 and re-elected in 2018 before being chosen by her colleagues in 2019 as the first African-American female president elected in the history of the MWRD, which was created in 1889. She was re-elected by the nine-member MWRD Board of Commissioners as president at the board of commissioners meeting on Jan. 7. She was first nominated by MWRD Commissioner Josina Morita, seconded by MWRD Commissioner Debra Shore, and unanimously elected as president.

The MWRD Monitoring and Research Department is currently collecting samples from six WRP to support studies on sewage surveillance monitoring for COVID-19 and tracking its spread in the Chicago area. The risk of transmission of the virus through the wastewater is low, but traces of viral RNA sampled in the water offer insight. An effective way to conduct COVID-19 monitoring is through community-level targeted monitoring of wastewater samples. Targeted monitoring can effectively survey communities for potential spread and hot spots and give public health agencies an edge in evaluating the presence of the virus and implementing additional strategies.

The MWRD maintains the best quality control in sample collection to ensure reliable data production and assists with data interpretation and timely use of data to warn public health departments of possible outbreaks.

“Through these difficult times, our taxpayers should know we will keep working hard to deliver affordable and essential services to protect our communities,” said MWRD Vice President Barbara McGowan.

The longest-serving commissioner on the MWRD Board of Commissioners, McGowan came into office in 1998, going on to become the agency’s first African-American vice president and serving as the first interim African-American female president in December 2012 and December 2014. McGowan has served as a stalwart leader and steady presence as chairman of the MWRD Affirmative Action Committee and the Procurement Committee. In February 2020, she led the charge for raising the first Black Heritage Flag (red, black and green) at the MWRD during Black History Month. During Black History Month 2021, McGowan again led the raising of the Black Heritage Flag during the second annual flag-raising ceremony to kick-off a month of celebrating African-American culture at MWRD.

In addition, she actively works with the MWRD Diversity Section to seek ways to ensure that minority and women contractors are treated fairly and have an opportunity to perform work through MWRD contracts. She was nominated as vice president at the Jan. 7 board of commissioners meeting by MWRD Commissioner Cameron Davis, seconded by MWRD Commissioner Kim Du Buclet and unanimously elected as vice president.

On Jan. 7, the MWRD Board of Commissioners also elected MWRD Commissioner Marcelino Garcia as the new chairman of finance. He is a tireless advocate of affirmative action and providing opportunities for everyone interested to take part in proactively protecting the region’s water resources.

Due to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Disaster Declaration and pursuant to Public Act 101-0640, the MWRD Board of Commissioners currently meet via video conference for its bi-monthly regular board meetings, which are open for public comment and participation. MWRD WRP staff are working around the clock, and office staff telecommute to push the MWRD mission ahead on contracts, permits, managing real estate and designing and maintaining infrastructure. The board of commissioners has implemented district-wide strict guidelines for social distancing, mask wearing and routine sanitizing to ensure staff’s safety.

Under extraordinary circumstances, officials said, the MWRD prevailed in 2020. It is determination, vigilance and open lines of communication that will guide it in 2021. One thing is clear, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago takes pride in the confidence of taxpayers to entrust them with the responsibility of protecting Cook County waterways in its service areas, and it will continue to work without cease to ensure the safety of the water environment, Cook County residents and MWRD staff.

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