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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

About 70 different species of trees and native plants are blossoming at the Mary Schmidt Community Sanctuary. This former parking lot space at the Alsip Boat Launch is now capturing stormwater runoff and reducing flooding and discharge to the Cal-Sag Channel. The sanctuary was made possible through key partnerships and a critical soil amendment known as biosolids from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD).

This community sanctuary, at 5399 W. Plattner Drive, was one project highlighted during a partnership exchange workshop hosted by the Cook County Farm Bureau and attended by other partners from the village of Alsip, the MWRD and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI). The unique partnership is focused on a common goal to protect downstream water quality through nutrient loss reduction.

“In the spirit of innovative collaboration and a shared commitment to environmental stewardship, we applaud Alsip and the CRTI for their remarkable partnership, which promises to safeguard the water quality of the Cal-Sag Channel,” said MWRD President Kari K. Steele. “We eagerly anticipate embarking on more sustainability initiatives. This project embodies the full spectrum of sustainable practices, and we commend all involved for their dedication to a cleaner, more resilient environment.”

Because of excess nutrients like phosphorus in downstream water in the Mississippi River basin, algal blooms and hypoxic conditions have harmed aquatic life and water quality as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. Now MWRD water and soil experts are working with farmers and agricultural researchers to study and apply new measures to capture and recycle nutrients to protect downstream water quality.

The MWRD is already meeting stringent permit requirements to remove nutrients from the wastewater treatment process at its Stickney Water Reclamation Plant with additional goals on track to be met at its Calumet Water Reclamation Plant in 2024. MWRD officials and the farming community have also collaborated to tackle the challenge by addressing nutrient pollution runoff from non-point sources.

“The Farm Bureau’s efforts in nutrient loss reduction aren’t possible without the collaboration between point and non-point sources like the MWRD and farmers,” said Bona Heinsohn, director of government affairs and public relations for the Cook County Farm Bureau. “The program with the village of Alsip and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative allowed us to showcase the tremendous work of our partners and the steps being taken to reduce nutrient loss into area waterways.”

The MWRD’s exceptional quality (EQ) biosolids and EQ Compost, which is a blend of biosolids and wood chips, played an important role in converting the old asphalt lot at the boat launch into a lush, fertile field of nearly three acres. The field now collects runoff and spurs more tree and plant growth. The MWRD contributed about 100 semitruck loads of its biosolids and EQ Compost. The biosolids that are recovered from the water reclamation process, supply organic matter and improve the structure and porosity of soils, which supports the plant establishment and allows plants to more effectively utilize nutrients.

After removing six to nine inches of stone base and asphalt, crews with the CRTI, Alsip, MWRD, Alsip Park District, Planet Landscapes and Greencorps Chicago helped rebuild the soil. The biosolids and compost blend of woodchips, helped accelerate plant growth from a previous hard clay soil on top of bedrock.

“This project shows the significant impact impervious surface removal and soil rehabilitation can have,” said CRTI Community Manager Zach Wirtz. “With contributions from the MWRD’s biosolids program and support from a long list of partners, we were able to turn a desolate parking lot into a public green space with an abundance of plants, shrubs and trees, and it is a new home for countless insects, birds and other wildlife.”

After nearly two years the plants are thriving and protecting area water. The site can hold up to two inches of rain. That is more than 200,000 gallons of water each time it rains that previously would have runoff from an industrial area and the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) and flowed into the Cal-Sag Channel. The site can capture more than 535,000 gallons of water per year or the equivalent of 10,000 full bathtubs.

“I hope this site will inspire other communities to do green infrastructure projects,” said Alsip Public Works Superintendent of Streets Mike Fraider. “We have been able to reduce stormwater runoff, increase our forestry canopy, and provide a beautiful area for people to come together and learn more about sustainability and resilience.”

The project became a reality after it earned a $260,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant from the U.S. Forest Service. Alsip added public art pieces and held a grand opening on Oct. 11 to dedicate the land as the Mary Schmidt Community Sanctuary.

The sanctuary project was honored with the Biosolids Beneficial Reuse at the MWRD’s 2022 Sustainability Summit and has earned the praise of the Friends of the Chicago River with a Blue Ribbon Award.

“Like the outside-the-box approach to partnering and improving nutrient runoff made possible through our partners at the Illinois Farm Bureau and Cook County Farm Bureau, we commend Alsip and the CRTI for partnering on an impressive project that will protect water quality in the Cal-Sag Channel,” said MWRD Vice President Patricia Theresa Flynn. “We look forward to taking on similar sustainability projects that promote resource recovery and improve soil management, native plants and tree growth, stormwater management and water quality. This project has it all.”

Press Release
Events, Stormwater

Established in 1889, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is an award-winning, special purpose government agency responsible for wastewater treatment and stormwater management in Cook County, Illinois.


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