2020 Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Questionnaire

1. How will you commit to spending more time educating the public on the MWRD?

I believe community education and engagement is essential to the future of MWRD. I grew up in  a home on the far south side of Chicago that frequently flooded during storms. I can remember  what a burden that was on my family. Educating communities on the role that MWRD plays to  reduce home flooding and protect public health is a very personal cause for me. If re-elected, I  will continue to promote public education and community outreach efforts. Residents need to  be aware of what MWRD does and how important it is for the public to participate as well.  Educating the public on actions such as using a rain barrel to capture rain water, or to not use  appliances during rainstorms, are small but important efforts that would help to keep excess  water out of our water ways and out of our basements.  

Developing and expanding innovative programming to engage communities, particularly young  people, in how water interacts with their daily lives and their role in water preservation will be  important to reducing water waste and raising a new generation of environmentalist. We can  learn from successful community education campaigns around other environmental issues like  recycling to develop effective strategies around water issues. I commit to spending as much  time as necessary to achieve these goal. This is an important role as a Commissioner as we  face increased rainfall and flooding issues across Chicago and Cook County.

2. What are your plans to institute stormwater management initiatives to save low income communities, particularly homeowners, from flooding related damages?

Stormwater management is crucial to protecting our waterways as well as our homes.  This is particularly important in low income communities where resources are scarce.  Stormwater management requires a multifaceted approach with both residents and  local governments working together to address the challenges we face with the  onslaught of climate change. MWRD must do more to prevent stormwater from  entering our overburdened stormwater and sewer systems by promoting the expansion  of green infrastructure across Cook County 

MWRD can also lead the effort to promote green building codes throughout Cook  County. I plan to continue to work with suburban counties and villages to adopt model policies that promote permeable surfacing, green building codes and other  environmental best practices. Unfortunately, Many disadvantaged communities do not  have sufficient funding for construction, repair and maintenance of green  infrastructure, especially in the south suburbs. I would support increased MWRD  and state funding for projects in these communities.  

MWRD can continue to develop watershed and stormwater master plans that, in  concert with local communities will help to identify needed stormwater management  improvements. MWRD should begin outreach to support local communities to create  flow passageways for water in case of flooding which would help protect critical  transportation routes. MWRD should take the opportunity to play a leadership role in  order to help promote a greener environment across our region.  

3. How do you see the MWRD’s role in stormwater management evolving over the  course of the next 10 years as we deal with climate change?

With climate change and increased frequency and intensity of rainfall I believe the  District needs to increase investment in water infrastructure and green infrastructure  plans that would help store more water safely in our neighborhoods and communities  during storm events. Urban flooding, like that we experience in the Chicago area is  mostly caused by large storm events and excessive runoff combined with a lack of  means for water to be safely transported out of the community or stored in the  community. Communities can be thought of as bath tubs with a drain connected to  them. Just like a bathtub, if more water flows in to a community than can flow out,  water overflows and causes flooded basements and sewer backups.  

Many communities of color have undergone decades of disinvestment in infrastructure  which has led to deteriorated or inadequate water infrastructure for water storage and  removal. Increased investments are needed in traditional sewer infrastructure to allow  for greater outflows of water and more green infrastructure to increase ability for  community storage of rainwater.

4. Do you support investing in green and modern stormwater management  infrastructure? If yes, please explain how you’ll work to make this happen. 

Yes. Green infrastructure (GI) allows excess storm water to slowly seep into the soil or  evaporate into the air, which ultimately reduces the amount of stormwater that enters  our sewers and water ways and can help control flooding. GI also offers  environmental, social, and economic benefits. It can increase property values, beautify  neighborhoods, cool extreme summer temperatures, support natural habitat, create  local green jobs, and enhance public space.  

When green infrastructure is in place, rainwater infiltrates into the soil and as a result,  it slows its entry into the sewer system. I support increased incentives for green  infrastructure (including green roofs, permeable pavers, and increased usage of rain  barrels) and I will be a strong advocate for conservation education to reduce the  amount of water going into the system. We also need to work towards reducing the use  of water resistant surface areas.  

Additionally, MWRD should consider providing tax credits or rebates for the inclusion  of green infrastructure, including permeable pavement, when permits for development  or redevelopment are sought under its Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO) so  more water can be captured and stored on site.  

5. How will your office work to institute public engagement before MWRD leases  land to private entities? 

As an elected Commissioner for the MWRD, I have a responsibility to serve all its  constituents, not just ones with money, power or access. I scrutinize board agendas and  look for items that may adversely impact a community. If I see community involvement  has been lacking, I ask my staff to properly engage with the impacted community  before seeking Board approval. My office will be in regular contact with communities  to ensure that they are protected and efforts taken are environmentally just. We must  find viable policies that help reduce flooding and pollution and remove burdens from  people’s homes and communities.  

Moreover, I do not support the sale of land owned by MWRD unless the land is not  attached to any of the waterways and will never be needed for District operations. The  MWRD should be a better steward of the land currently owned by the district and  should require tenants to adopt best management practices for stormwater  management and by providing incentives for them to do so. MWRD should also ensure  that its tenants are not the source of pollution into the Chicago waterways and sanction  those who violate regulations. The MWRD should also have the ability to break leases  with tenants who are not being good environmental stewards. Taking climate change  into consideration, the MWRD should not make short-sighted decisions like selling its  resources for quick cash when that land may be needed for pumping stations or other  methods of preventing rising water levels and flooding in the future. 

1.How will you commit to spending more time educating the public on the MWRD?

You can imagine that as a doctor of statistics, I have a long history in education. I first trained to  be a high school mathematics teacher as an undergraduate. As a graduate student I was a  lecturer and teaching assistant for many statistics and mathematics classes at UIC.  

As an environmental justice organizer for the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform  Organization (PERRO), I’ve brought in several nationally-recognized experts, including the Flint  whistleblower, to my local library to educate the public about the dangers of lead in Chicago’s  water. When those efforts failed to educate our politicians, I took direct action and organized  volunteers to hand out lead water filters to affected families in Pilsen. In the process of handing  out lead water filters, we took special care to educate the public on the causes and solutions to  the problem of lead in our water.  

As an organizer of the Chicago R User Group (CRUG), a group dedicated to spreading the love  of the open-source statistical programming language R, I bring in locally and nationally recognized experts to educate students, job-seekers, and others in the community interested in  statistics, computing, data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.  

As Commissioner of the MWRD, I would continue my efforts to educate the public in public and  private forums. That said, it’s important to recognize that not every person has the time or desire  to be engaged. The likely audience of a Chicago Votes MWRD questionnaire is likely to be more  privileged than the average voter.  

I believe most voters want to trust that their elected officials will do the difficult and laborious  work of running our society so that they can focus on their lives. Unlike the Democratic  candidates, I don’t take money from special interests. I want those less privileged voters to  know that I’m working for them too. For better or worse, in the eyes of those constituents, the  best indication that the MWRD is doing a good job is that they don’t have to think about us at all.

2. What are your plans to institute stormwater management initiatives to save low income  communities particularly homeowners, from flooding related damage 

As the Sun Times noted there was a pilot program in Chatham to install green infrastructure that  was delayed by the pandemic. Let me tell you about pilot programs in Chicago.  

https://chicago.suntimes.com/2020/7/20/21327802/flooding-rain-basements-street-chatham may-weather-311 

Back in 2014, I was giving a talk about our “two” neighborhood metal shredders. Afterwards, a  man introduced himself and explained there was lead in Chicago’s water. This man, Miguel Del  Toral, an EPA employee, went on to become the Flint whistleblower. Before he blew the whistle  in Flint he blew the whistle in Chicago. Just like he did in Flint, he leaked his preliminary report  to the local press in 2011. 

How did Mayor Emanual react to Miguel’s rather obvious findings that running water through  unstable lead pipes puts lead in our water? Rahm ignored him for 4 years. After Flint, our  problem couldn’t be ignored. Did Rahm immediately call for replacing Chicago’s lead service  lines? No. Rahm wanted pilot programs. Rahm wanted more tests. Rahm claimed it wasn’t  really a problem. Rahm did everything he could do to not deal with this inconvenient problem;  much like he did with the infamous Laquan McDonald tape. I decided to take direct action and  organized PERRO volunteers to hand out lead water filters to affected families in Pilsen in an  effort to shame the mayor and alderman into acting. The lesson was learned.  

The dangers of lead in water have been well understood for centuries. It was understood  specifically in Chicago since 2011. Yet, acting on the problem was politically inconvenient. So  we got pilots and tests to delay meaningful action.  

Similarly, green infrastructure is well understood. Here’s a 13-year old cost benefit analysis:  https://semspub.epa.gov/work/02/206365.pdf 

It appears as if the MWRD commissioners find it politically inconvenient to their campaign  contributors to not have the solution to our flooding be a big engineering solution… so we get  delays with pilots. Just like with the lead in our water.  

What are we waiting for? Our neighbors can’t wait for next spring’s torrential downpours to flood  their basements again. We have solutions! We need action! Now! 

3. How do you see The MWRD role in stormwater management evolving over the course  of the next 10 years as we deal with climate change? 

MWRD engineer Kevin Fitzpatrick was quoted in a fantastic Slate article last year saying, “It’s  now clear that this 50-year, multibillion-dollar project (Deep Tunnel) will not be sufficient to stop  flooding in Chicago.”  

https://slate.com/business/2019/01/chicagos-deep-tunnel-is-it-the-solution-to-urban-flooding-or a-cautionary-tale.html 

The author goes on: “The congested network of neighborhood sewers in Chicago and its  suburbs—local roads leading to the Deep Tunnel highway—also remain an unresolved issue…  the Deep Tunnel is helpless to empty undersized sewers battling against supersize storms and  sprawl… Even the system’s original engineers knew that its potential to solve neighborhood  flooding would be limited by local infrastructure.”  

That’s why I proposed back in February that, “As an expert on data and artificial intelligence, I  will bring my technical skills to bear on issues within the MWRD. As commissioner, I will connect  the dots between flooding and necessary infrastructure improvements.” I’m happy to see that  some of my opponents have reversed course from their WTTW statements and are now  echoing my calls for more data and analytics to help prioritize our sewer investments where they  are most needed.  

https://news.wttw.com/elections/voters-guide/2020/candidates/metropolitan-water-reclamation district/troy-antonio-hernandez

Lastly, the Slate article points out that other cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia are taking a  different approach. “If Chicago built a bathtub, Philadelphia is trying to transform itself into a  sponge with park space, street trees, and permeable pavement… the MWRD has committed to  creating just 10 million gallons of green infrastructure capacity under its EPA consent decree.  Compare that to… Milwaukee, [which] now believes its green infrastructure will, by 2035… hold  up to 740 million gallons of rain where it falls.”  

Why is the MWRD so lethargic in its utilization of green infrastructure? Incentives. When you  have big engineering companies making big campaign contributions to MWRD candidates, you  get big expensive engineering solutions at the MWRD like the Deep Tunnel. If there were green  infrastructure companies handing out big campaign contributions, the Democratically controlled  commission might think harder about these alternative solutions. Fortunately for voters, unlike  the Democrats, my fellow Green candidates and I don’t take corporate campaign contributions.  Our goal is to serve the people of the district, not to act like typical Madigan Democrats by  leeching taxpayers for their campaign contributors.  

For a detailed list of my opponents’ questionable campaign contributions, go here:  https://southsideweekly.com/running-clean-water-mwrd-finances-2020/ 

4. Do you support investing in green and modern Stormwater Management  infrastructure? If yes, please explain how you’ll work to make this happen. 

As I wrote above, green and modern stormwater management infrastructure is my solution and  an alternative to the big engineering solutions that, not so coincidentally, benefit my opponents  campaign contributors.  

I believe the incentive to obtain campaign contributions can skew our elected officials’  perspectives on appropriate solutions. So to make green and modern infrastructure a reality, we  have to change our commissioners’ incentives. To change our commissioners incentives we  need to reform MWRD campaign finance laws. I echo my proposal from 6 years ago to publicly  finance our political campaigns.  

We now know that while I was writing the above proposal back in 2014, my opponent in that  race, Ald. Danny Solis, was in the process of becoming a cooperating witness for the FBI  against Ald. Ed Burke. What was Danny Solis caught doing? Engaging in official actions as an  elected representative in exchange for campaign contributions.  

While not every elected representative is as carelessly explicit in their quid pro quo agreements  as Solis was, in Chicago we know that this isn’t necessary. All that’s needed is a big campaign  contribution, a wink, and a nod.

5. How will your office work to institute public engagement before MWRD leases land to  private Entities?

This is a difficult proposal for the reasons stated above. Not every person has the time or desire  to be engaged by the MWRD. The likely audience of a Chicago Votes MWRD questionnaire is  likely to be more privileged and more engaged than the average voter. Most voters want to trust  that their elected officials will do the difficult and laborious work of running our society so that  they can focus on their lives.  

As an organizer for the last 6 years in the unique political environment that is Pilsen, I’ve seen  repeatedly how “public outreach” gets weaponized by special interest groups to push agendas  that go against the prevailing sentiments of the general public.  

As Robert Becker and Dan Mihalopoulos wrote in their tremendous Chicago Tribune series,  “Neighborhoods for Sale”, “most [politicians] insist they get neighborhood input from community  groups or handpicked advisory panels before approving or rejecting projects. What they don’t  say is that those groups often are stacked with real estate agents, developers and campaign  donors with vested interests in the zoning decisions made by the aldermen.”  

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-code-astroturfjan28-story.html

I’m always happy to attempt the usual methods of outreach; e.g. public forums, community  discussions, engaging with local non-profits/government officials, etc. But as someone engaged  in Chicago politics for over a decade, I think it’s important to remind privileged progressives that  this “community input” is frequently an illusion. Again, most voters want to trust that their elected  officials will do the difficult and laborious work of running our society so that they can focus on  their lives. Aligning the incentives of politicians with that general public is a more effective  method of delivering the benefits that we imagine our attempted public engagement will deliver.

1. How will you commit to spending more time educating the public on the MWRD?

The MWRD has the potential to be a catalyst that transforms the public’s consciousness of how  our individual habits and government actions impact our natural resources. As one of the few  legislative bodies that serves Cook County at large, the MWRD can be a trusted messenger on  environmental and sustainability topics for the over 5 million residents it represents. 

Furthermore, the MWRD can continue its trend of setting a national example on how local  governments can responsibly manage flood mitigation and water treatment. In recent decades,  the MWRD has increasingly adopted innovative technologies that have prioritized public health  and sustainability. As the world confronts the existential problem of climate change, the  utilization of these technologies have the potential to set a positive precedent for how  governments can address the environmental threats that are to come.  

For example, the pollution of waterways by plastics and pharmaceuticals is a widespread  problem that negatively impacts communities and ecologies. Plastic litter is a visually identifiable  issue that government offices have been working to address for decades, but the harm  pharmaceutical contamination wreaks on aquatic life and public health are not as well known.  As Commissioner, I will push for the MWRD to launch a community engagement campaign to  raise awareness of this critical issue and to make responsible pharmaceutical disposable more  accessible. It is not a secret that the MWRD has been one of the less visible legislative bodies in Cook  County. Regardless, the MWRD has a tremendous impact on infrastructure, local ecologies and  public health! As Commissioner, I will engage the public to increase awareness of our impact  and how local residents can contribute to the decision making process.

2. What are your plans to institute stormwater management initiatives to save low income communities, particularly homeowners, from flooding related damages?

Environmental justice is a top priority for me — and equitable investment and green  infrastructure are critical components of achieving it. Climate disruption is causing more severe  and frequent storm events, increasing flooding and causing financial harm to working families.  

Low income and historically disinvested regions — which are frequently Black and Brown  communities — often have outdated infrastructure that makes them vulnerable to flooding in  recreational areas, streets and even homes. Already scarce in needed resources, these  communities experience the greatest barriers in recovering from stormwater disasters. Equitable planning can help ensure that green infrastructure projects are implemented where  they are most needed. Green infrastructure, including initiatives like permeable pavement, rain  gardens, and improved canal routes, can decrease the risk of stormwater disasters happening  again and provide the added bonus of green job opportunities for local residents.  

3. How do you see the MWRD’s role in stormwater management evolving over the  course of the next 10 years as we deal with climate change?

The MWRD is a regional and national leader in modeling how wastewater treatment agencies  can be a strong force in pushing for sustainability practices in the face of a changing climate.  While the MWRD has made great progress, it has the potential to expand its leadership role by  adopting further innovative technologies and increasing public engagement. In my first term as  Commissioner, I will focus on the following priorities: 

1. Prioritizing equitable investment and environmental justice: As a millennial, a  mother and the daughter of immigrants, I have come to see that our current task of  addressing the interconnected issues of climate change and racial inequity is one of the  biggest challenges that former generations have left to us. In order for our communities  to survive and prosper, there must be greater equity in allocating resources and greater  opportunity to adopt sustainable practices. The changes we have to make are not just a  momentary gimmick; they must be comprehensively inclusive, systemic and permanent. 

2. Collaborating with government offices and community stakeholders to create a  comprehensive water resource management plan: To meet “green” and “grey”  infrastructural needs, wastewater treatment agencies must advocate for increased  funding from State and Federal governments to navigate the effects of climate change.  Of Illinois’ recent $45 billion capital bill, only $175 million (less than 1%) was allocated for  water infrastructure. Securing increased funding will not be easy, which is why it is imperative that local advocates come together to present a plan and ultimately leverage  their united voice to negotiate for it. 

3. Uplifting and including community voices: The inclusion of Cook County’s diverse  populations has been the highlight of my leadership growth from community activist to  elected leadership, and an effort I will continue as Commissioner. Across races,  ethnicities and identities, we have an abundance of residents whose lived experiences  and expertise can ground policy in community needs. I will work to collaborate with local  stakeholders to ensure that their voices are heard at the table and reflected in our  decision making. I will also work to strengthen our partnerships with our local municipal  government.  

4. Making data publicly accessible: An updated technology infrastructure can support  data sharing and performance based decision making in protecting the integrity of our  stormwater systems, our neighborhoods and our regional water supply as storm activity  increases and intensifies. As a particularly relevant sidenote, improving data  infrastructure can also give advance notice of public health trends, such as the positivity  rate of the COVID-19 virus. 5. Engaging and educating the public: As previously mentioned, the MWRD has not  been a highly visible legislative body despite its tremendous impact on infrastructure,  local ecologies and public health. To truly understand the local impact of climate change  and to inform flood and stormwater solutions, the MWRD must engage the public to  increase awareness of issues and promote opportunities for feedback.

4. Do you support investing in green and modern stormwater management  infrastructure? If yes, please explain how you’ll work to make this happen.

Yes, I absolutely support investing in green and modern stormwater management infrastructure.  Among the many ideas I am looking forward to exploring, I would be interested in promoting  greater collaboration between the MWRD and the City of Chicago to fund “Green Alleys”  through a match grant or other subsidies. Similar efforts could also be taken at the municipal  level to provide residents with more cost effective opportunities to adopt green infrastructure  improvements in their homes. Furthermore, I will push for increased investment in modern technology that will allow the  MWRD to more effectively transmit data within the stormwater district to better (and more  quickly) inform management actions regarding flooding and water quality conditions. Technology investments can also support wastewater based epidemiology (WBE) which has the potential to  help public health agencies address health outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

5. How will your office work to institute public engagement before MWRD leases  land to private entities?  

I would like the Board to revisit the MWRD’s Comprehensive Land Use Policy, which was last  updated over a decade ago. Through reviewing this policy, the MWRD can update its  assessment of how to most productively use land and implement any new measures that more  closely meet the needs of the present moment. This review — and any policies impacting land  use — should provide ample opportunity for community education, engagement and feedback.  

As the second largest landowner in Cook County, the MWRD must prioritize conservation,  habitat restoration, stormwater capture and recreational use in its land management decisions. I  would be excited to support equitable land use projects, such as clean job hubs, green  stormwater infrastructure, urban agriculture and other forward looking initiatives. Furthermore, I  support the collaborating with agencies and community organizations in the strategic  establishment of a habitat buffer along riverbanks to support habitat restoration and community driven uses for MWRD property. 

1. How will you commit to spending more time educating the public on the MWRD?

I started my career as a public interest clean water organizer and volunteer, educating the public about  why we have to take care of our water. Because if we take care of our water, it will take care of us. As a  commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, I work to educate the public constantly  about our water and MWRD’s job in protecting it for all of us. 

2. What are your plans to institute stormwater management initiatives to save low-income  communities, particularly homeowners, from flooding related damages?

As an MWRD commissioner, I’ve made it a priority to better protect disproportionately impacted  communities. Because of this, we now have a Watershed Management Ordinance that recognizes that  some communities flood more than others, and some communities need more help than others. When one  of our communities is unable to safeguard itself against flooding, it hurts all of Cook County.

3. How do you see the MWRD’s role in stormwater management evolving over the course of the  next 10 years as we deal with climate change?

As MWRD taxpayers, we pay about $40 million in energy bills and we mostly rely on coal, gas, and  nuclear energy. Burning coal and gas for fuel contributes to climate change and air pollution. So, we’re  actually paying to pollute our air and put future generations at risk. That doesn’t make sense. As  commissioner, I’m working to pivot MWRD toward more reliance on renewable (e.g., solar, wind) and  recoverable (e.g., biogas from our waste streams) sources of energy. And that will bring our energy bills  down in the long run, too. People can learn more at https://camdavis.org.

4. Do you support investing in green and modern stormwater management infrastructure? If yes,  please explain how you’ll work to make this happen.

Absolutely. This past May, I introduced a motion that passed unanimously to explore bringing “green  infrastructure”—using nature to complement pipes, plants, and pumps to reduce flooding and improve water quality—to suburban Cook County schoolyards. Right now, our schoolyard green infrastructure  only exists in the Chicago. We can do more to serve the most vulnerable communities among us.

5. How will your office work to institute public engagement before MWRD leases land to private  entities?

As a commissioner, I’ve advocated that we put public engagement requirements into our leases so that  communities have an opportunity to weigh in on land uses. We did that recently with a proposed  recycling plant on the Chicago River, working to make sure that the Little Village Environmental Justice  Organization (LVEJO) had the chance to have input on the proposed lease. Private entities and the  public are better off when they have the chance to work together. As commissioners, we need to help  make those connections.