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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Greater Southwest News-Herald: ‘Anything that gets flushed’

What better activity for a sunny spring day than touring the world’s largest wastewater treatment plant—which many people did during the open house held Saturday at the MWRD’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Cicero.

To celebrate Chicago Water Week, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District gave area residents behind-the-scenes tours during open houses held at the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant in Skokie on May 4, and the Stickney plant, 6001 W. Pershing Road, on May 11.

Stickney Settling Tanks
An open house on May 11 at the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Cicero gave participants a chance to see the circular settling tanks where millions of gallons of filtered water ends up each day--the last step before release into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. --Greater Southwest News-Herald photo by Dermot Connolly

The event in Cicero also included a STEM fair, with information about everything from recycling biosolids to how binary code is used in computer programming. Participants lined up to make personalized keychains and bracelets with beads representing binary code. Free trees were also available for people to plant at home.

But the main attraction was the guided tours, with groups of about 30 people taken behind the scenes to see how the 500-acre MWRD facility works.

“We were formed in 1889 in order to create a system that would reverse the Chicago River and we also built our sewers and sanitary filtration system.  We are now responsible for the protection of drinking water,” said plant manager Adam Gronski, explaining that epidemics of cholera and other diseases caused by drinking water from Lake Michigan that had been tainted by sewage emptied into the Chicago River.

Gronski stressed that the MWRD’s seven wastewater treatment plants, which cover Chicago and 128 suburbs, mainly in Cook County, protects drinking water. The MWRD is regulated by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and all the water treated in Stickney goes into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which flows into the Des Plaines River, and eventually the Mississippi River.

Drinking water in the city is provided by the Chicago Department of Water Management.

Operations Manager Joe Cummings at Stickney Tour
MWRD Operations manager Joe Cummings explains the work that goes on at the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Cicero during an open house held at the facility on May 11. –Greater Southwest News-Herald photo by Dermot Connolly

As Joe Cummings, the operations manager of the MWRD Stickney plant put it, “Anything that gets flushed down the toilet—that’s ours.”

“We have nothing to do with drinking water. If it goes down your drain at your house, or storm sewers, it comes here,” he added.

Cummings said the plant was built in 1930 and expanded in 1939.  It serves 2.3 million people, stretching from 87th Street on the south to Fullerton Avenue (2400 north) in Chicago, and 46 suburbs, making it the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world.

“We treat about 500 to 700 million gallons of water on an average day. But we can do as much as 1.4 billion gallons a day,” he said.

When there is overflow, the Deep Tunnel system provides space additional storage of storm water, in reservoirs such as the one in McCook.

Cummings described the three-step process that water goes through at the plant, beginning with sifting out any large pieces of debris.

“Car wheels and bowling balls—even a prosthetic leg at one time” were among the biggest things removed during the initial screening process, Cummings said.

Further filtration processes involve using microbes to consume biological waste and the removal of biosolids and minerals that are later recycled into fertilizer and other uses. Methane gas removed is used to partially power the plant. The water then gets a final treatment before its release into the river system.

“We have to meet the IEPA guidelines to ensure the water is clean enough for recreational use,” said Cummings.

Tour participants were able to see the 500-acre facility by bus, seeing all the filtration tanks they heard about, as well as goats grazing on one section of the property not easily maintained by vehicles.

Brian Levy, a civil engineer with MWRD serving as guide, pointed out that the plant has its own railroad system to ship biosolids.

“I appreciate what they do here. We came to see it because this is what we vote for,” said Paul Gilbert, who drove down from Rogers Park with his wife, Tammy Besser.

Frank Kraut, of Cicero, said he came to find out more about flood control measures because his community was hit by a bad flood last July.

“I am very pro-neighbor and want to pass on the information,” he said.

Anyone interested may sign up for similar tours held at the plant at 10 a.m. every Thursday. 

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Media Coverage
Events, Wastewater

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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