MWRD celebrates 125 years in operation

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May 30, 2014 -- On Thursday, May 29, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) celebrated its 125th anniversary in operation. The MWRD, originally known as the Sanitary District, was established in 1889 after the Illinois General Assembly enacted the Sanitary District Enabling Act, with the purpose of protecting the region's water supply, managing its wastewater, improving water quality, and preventing flooding. The young agency's first initiative was to reverse the flow of the polluted Chicago River away from Lake Michigan, the source of the city's drinking water, by excavating the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. 

Excavating the 28-mile canal was a project of unprecedented scale and difficulty. It took 8,500 workers eight years to complete. Many of the same methods and techniques were used a few years later for the construction of the Panama Canal. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is often referred to as the "canal that saved Chicago." Without it, the city was in danger of drowning in its own wastewater and would not exist as it is known today. The importance of the canal is memorialized in the flag of the city of Chicago, adopted in 1917.

The waterway system protected the lake from the river's water, but the river itself was still famously polluted. In the early 20th century, the MWRD began developing wastewater treatment technology and building water reclamation plants to clean wastewater before it reached the waterways. Today, the MWRD operates seven water reclamation plants with outstanding records of compliance with water quality standards and is leading the way in developing sustainable new treatment processes.

Historically, the MWRD's treatment plants worked to clean wastewater in dry weather, but during rain storms, the sewer system could become overwhelmed and overflow to waterways. The MWRD began work on the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), or "Deep Tunnel," in the early 1970s to address this problem. TARP consists of over 100 miles of tunnels as large as 33 feet in diameter and vast reservoirs to capture stormwater and sewer overflows. The tunnel portion of TARP was completed in 2006 and is fully operational. Further, the reservoir portion is currently under construction. Since going online, TARP has greatly reduced combined sewer overflows, protected property and improved water quality. The system will be even more effective when the reservoirs are complete.

In 2004, the MWRD was granted stormwater management authority for Cook County. Since then, it has embarked on constructing major regional flood control projects throughout the county. The District is also exploring ways to work with all 125 communities using available technologies to decrease flooding in major rain events, which it is experiencing on a more routine basis. To prevent future commercial, municipal and residential development and redevelopment projects from exacerbating flooding, the Board approved the Watershed Management Ordinance, which provides uniform stormwater management regulations for Cook County. It took effect Thursday, May 1.

See also:

"MWRD creates online historical database about beginnings"

"Tunnel and Reservoir Plan to Begin Last Stretch"

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