Eira Corral Sepúlveda is one of ten Democrats running for three six-year seats on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) board of commissioners, which is responsible for cleaning wastewater and managing stormwater in Cook County. Sepúlveda is currently the Village Clerk of the Village of Hanover Park, a suburb west of O’Hare that is close to forty percent Latinx. Sepúlveda boasts a long list of endorsements, including the Cook County Democratic Party, U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, several Independent Precinct Organizations on the Southwest Side, and both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times.
Can you introduce yourself for our readers on the South Side?
A: I’ve been elected in Hanover Park for the last ten years. I first ran for office when I was twenty-three; I ran for office because I thought representation mattered and we had a need to have someone that represented the Latino community, and a very diverse community, here in Hanover Park. So that was in 2009, I was the youngest elected official in the state for a little bit and it was pretty cool. I was really proud of the things that I’ve done over the last ten years, and I’m hoping to bring my government experience, my civic engagement experience, and also my environmental experience [to the MWRD].
What were your biggest accomplishments during your decade in office?
I would say transparency and inclusive government. I’ve worked with the business community as well. Those are strengths that I seek to bring into the district. I think the cool thing about the MWRD is there are nine commissioners, and the goal is to have them set the vision and direct policy, and they’re working hand in hand with a professional staff. The staff is the one that really does the day-to-day operations of the district, and I have experience doing that because in my hometown, part of the district is not covered within the jurisdiction of MWRD. We have our own sewer treatment plant in Hanover Park, and I am familiar with the operations, maintenance, and the management of a sewer treatment plant.
What would be a primary issue you would focus on if elected?
I’m jumping into the water game because water is the climate change issue in our region. Our water is our future. What we do with our rainwater and how we protect our freshwater resources matters. The way that we manage this asset is important.
The way that Chicago and the Cook County area is impacted by climate change is through weather, and that’s something that I came to understand a few years back after my home flooded. I was a new homeowner, a single mom, and it was a real struggle. You’re losing your belongings that are sometimes irreplaceable, so it was incredibly expensive as well. When we get these extreme weather events, where it rains so much, our systems become over-capacitated. Your local systems aren’t really built to absorb all of the rain that falls, and inevitably it ends up going into people’s basements. This is something that impacts communities across Cook County, but it disproportionately impacts Black and brown zip codes.
Over the last ten years, I’ve been focusing on the value and importance of a biodiverse urban forest to prevent flooding. I have also focused on programs that are available for homeowners. There’s an insurance program that assists residents if they have sewer issues. For me, building inclusion in government is something that I’ve really focused on and something that I want to bring to the district, especially addressing what I see as the most important issue facing our generation. I’m a millennial mom and I think it’s important that we build resilience and fight against climate change. That’s what I see as the most important issue.
Do you have some ideas to reduce the district’s greenhouse gas emissions?
The MWRD is abiding by the Paris Climate Agreement, so I think that’s a strong step forward. I read some of the memos, they’re currently looking into biogas uses. The memo that I just reviewed indicated that this wasn’t viable due to financial, environmental, and energy security factors, so when you’re looking to make big changes, you have to look [at those factors], and right now their recommendation is to continue with the current use. But I do want to work with our staff and look into that further, to explore new technology that’s available. In any case, I think we have an opportunity to engage in green infrastructure.
I look to Milwaukee, for example. By 2035, their goal is to have 740 million gallons of green infrastructure capacity. [Ed. note: Milwaukee is seeking to install green infrastructure that would absorb that volume of water every time it rains.] We, on the other hand, have only committed to 10 million gallons via the EPA consent decree. So we can continue to make strides in investing in green infrastructure, because if we could prevent that water from even entering into the sewer system, it would be an incredible cost savings, but it would also help alleviate some of the system challenges that we have. I do support the Deep Tunnel project. We don’t know what the final impact of climate change is, in the near future or the long-term future. Even if we do have an [environmentally friendly] administration in the next presidency, it’s going to take some time to turn this ship around.
In 2018, the Green Party slate raised the issue of commissioners taking contributions from companies who have done business before the district. I also noticed your name on a palm card from House Speaker Michael Madigan’s ward organization. How do you negotiate getting the support of entities that some consider problematic while staying ethical?
The Madigan thing, that was as shocking to me as it was to everybody else. I didn’t have that conversation with him, so I can’t speak to why he did that. I’m not even going to try to pretend to know how Madigan works. I didn’t ask for his endorsement. If anything, it shows that I’m a winning candidate and we have good momentum. I don’t have any money from Madigan, I just want to make that very clear. I have not asked for his money, I have not asked for his endorsement or support.
Regarding ethics, the board passed [an agreement creating] an inspector general, and I really support that measure. He put a list of recommendations for best practices in different areas in government, some of which were implemented. I do think we can make modifications to strengthen them, like the registration fee that includes not-for-profits, I would modify that. Additionally, I would support contribution limits and see how to strengthen ethics liaisons. I also think we need to look at nepotism. I find it problematic that relatives are hired by commissioners, I don’t think that’s appropriate and it doesn’t establish trust with our public.
What are other ideas you’d like to promote if elected to the board?
That’s something I’d like to see more, to be able to communicate concepts to people in a way that is accessible, culturally accessible, language accessible, that is really important to me. To be able to create a new culture that engages young people. The other opportunity that we have is to push the behavior of consumers when it comes to the use of plastics. Landfill plastics are becoming a real challenge for our ecosystem, our systems are just not meant to filter them out, and they create a lot of problems in our water systems and also in the ecosystem.
Green jobs training is an incredibly important way to address environmental justice. I’d like to see green infrastructure projects with equity prioritized, and I think we can work in partnership with major school districts like CPS. We want to make sure that we’re establishing boot camps, online platforms, and really emphasize hiring and preparing Black and brown youth for these jobs. We have exciting programs that I don’t think are being maximized. For example, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus has the Greenest Region Corps, they have environmental students working on sustainability plans [for local governments]. I’m really excited for the future of the Clean Energy Jobs Act.
We need to update the comprehensive land use policy. It hasn’t been updated in over ten years and there’s some inconsistencies. For example, recently there was a farm in Blue Island that faced such a struggle because they’re considered a for-profit business, but they were filling a strong need in the community for fresh produce at an accessible cost, and they were given a very hard time by the district in continuing their business. But you also have the development projects in Crestwood that one of my opponents is touting. I’m not saying the development program is wrong, I have to look into it a little bit further, but it’s very inconsistent when you have a business that’s in alignment with our mission and environmental goals [and is struggling], and another one that isn’t necessarily [in alignment with our goals] but it’s getting the green light.
We can also work in partnership to promote open land with the Friends of the Chicago River or the Forest Preserve District, creating habitat buffers to support conservation.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the Weekly. She last wrote about South Side muralist Bill Walker.