Commissioner Frank Avila is one of ten Democrats running for three six-year seats on the board of commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Avila was first elected to the board in 2002, won re-election in 2008 and 2014, and currently serves as the district’s chairman of finance. This time around, however, he’s running without the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, who supported him in his last two elections. Prior to his service on the board, he worked as a civil engineer. He holds a BS in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a MS in finance from the University of Arizona.
You’ve been on the board of commissioners for a long time, eighteen years. What are the accomplishments during your tenure that you’re most proud of?
When I first got on the board, we were pushing to have the water management ordinance passed through. I ran on that, that I wanted to see us take over the water management ordinance, because the district was involved with the Deep Tunnel into the reservoirs. I wanted the stormwater authority over Cook County, because originally Cook County had the authority. But they didn’t have the staff and they didn’t have the facilities and the know-how to account for stormwater here in Cook County.
The district at that time was leading the Deep Tunnel, which runs 109 miles. We were going to start building these reservoirs. So that was my platform. When I won, it took us a couple years to get the draft in the correct way that we wanted to present it to the legislators. When we went down to Springfield, we needed five votes. This type of bill is bipartisan. We needed five votes to have it pass, so I approached Dale Risinger, who was a [Republican] State Senator [and a fellow engineer], and I said “Dale, can you get about five of your friends together?” So I could talk to them about the importance of this bill that we’re trying to push through, because it helps everyone to protect the health and welfare of the residents of Cook County and we’re trying to pass it through. We need Republican votes. This is a bipartisan bill. We took them out, I explained to them, and it passed. That was one of my first accomplishments.
Another accomplishment is that I passed the ordinance to not use any synthetic herbicides on our property, because toxicity tests of herbicide show they pose a threat to human health and the environment. This serves as a model for the rest of Cook County to not use any synthetic herbicides on their property come spring, when everybody wants to take care of their lawns and gardens. I encourage people to not use any weed killer, because it not only kills weeds, it affects the health and welfare of the kids. If they have a dog in their home, they have more of that weed killer in their home than they have out on the lawn, and that will affect their health.
Also, we have Space to Grow. We appropriate $15 million to work with the schools. Space to Grow has picked about thirty schools here in Chicago to put in a redesigned playground to reduce flooding, grow crops, teach kids how to make a plan, and the importance of not using any herbicide or pesticide when they’re planting the plant.
We’re giving away 100,000 oak saplings, because we’re all talking about climate change and how to reduce climate change by capturing that CO2. The soil and the trees will absorb that CO2. We have given away over 70,000 trees, and we encourage the residents here in Cook County to plant these saplings to reduce climate change. We also gave out 130,000 rain barrels to encourage residents to help capture stormwater and encourage their own conservation practices.
We have two types of material that we give away, biosolids and compost. [Ed. note: The MWRD charges a fee per cubic yard for biosolids and compost delivery; residents who bring their own bucket and shovel can pick up free compost at any of the MWRD’s seven water reclamation plants.] We go out and talk to gardening groups, how to apply the biosolids and the compost. When you use our compost and biosolids, that also absorbs CO2. We’re all talking about climate change; at the district, we’ve been protecting [against] climate change for over thirty years. The product that people give us, when you eat and when you drink and go eliminate your waste, that comes into our wastewater plant and we treat it. We capture that methane gas you give us, and we convert that gas to energy and use that energy to run our plants.
So what challenges have you faced during your tenure, what things haven’t you been able to accomplish that you still want to work on?
Right now, in the next term, what we want to accomplish—originally, wastewater plants were designed to treat wastewater. It’s changed now. We could do more besides treating water. We call it resource recovery. We want to have nutrient removal. Everyone talks about phosphorus in the waterway, because if you have too much of that in the waterways, it takes out the dissolved oxygen, creates algae, and that affects that aquatic life. So now what we’re trying to do is reduce the amount of phosphorus running into the waterways so it doesn’t affect the dissolved oxygen for the aquatic life to live. Look at what you have down in the Gulf of Mexico, you’ve got the dead zone the size of the State of Massachusetts. We can change our ways on nutrient removal.
We’ve built the McCook and Thornton Reservoirs, so now, when we have these kinds of rains, we have some place to capture all the drainage. We’re trying to improve on helping the community to direct, when it rains and it goes into their systems, to give it to us so we can discharge that into these reservoirs.
We’re trying to do more local projects with the communities. We take care of over 126 municipalities, and we’re trying to work with municipalities to identify areas in their villages where it floods a lot and try to work out a system to get flooding to come into our system, into our reservoir so it doesn’t flood. We’re doing more green infrastructure, instead of gray infrastructure. Every time we do a project, we implement green infrastructure like swales and native plants to absorb the water. We’re trying to work with the communities there on that.
I’m originally from the Gulf coast, so we definitely appreciate it.
The Gulf is hurting. When we discharge the effluent from our wastewater plants, if you’re on the North Side, it goes into the North Shore Channel. If you’re on the South Side, it goes into the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, and further south it goes into the Cal-Sag Channel. They all meet at Lockport. We have a lock there, and it goes into the Des Plaines River, from the Des Plaines River it goes into the Illinois River, from the Illinois River it goes into the Mississippi, and then as it moves down the Mississippi, it’s got all that farmland discharging their fertilizer into the system, and it all ends up in the Gulf. That’s why you have that dead zone, because all the nutrients that are going in there, all the pesticides and herbicides that are being collected along the Mississippi, moves all along down to the Gulf.
Another problem that I’d like to see is that for us to maintain and treat human waste, we need to make sure that we rehabilitate our plants. What I did, I’m chairman of finance, I appropriated a hundred million dollars this year to do a lot of repair work on our plants, because we have to make sure that our plants are up to grade to do what we’re doing as we take care of the health of the residents of Cook County. [Ed. note: the Weekly was unable to independently confirm this figure.] We take care of all human waste from five million people. And we also take care of all the manufacturers, which equates to another five million, so that equates to ten million people. We have to make sure that our plants are operating efficiently. It’s also important to incorporate energy efficiency in the design of any construction upgrades.
Switching gears a bit, you didn’t get the Democratic Party endorsement this August. Could you talk about this process? What happened, and why didn’t you get that endorsement?
I provide a service to the public. I don’t provide a service to myself or to anyone else. My main goal is providing service to the residents of Cook County and to make sure I take care of their health and welfare, that’s my main purpose. For me to say why they didn’t endorse me, I don’t know, I can’t speak to the process. All I know is, in my years in service at the district, I provide a service to the public, not a service to myself.
When I go out, I go on and talk to the people, talk to them about what we’re doing. I’m the only engineer on the board, and the agency is an engineering type of agency. I’m chairman of finance, so when I pick a project for us to work on, I pick a project that’s gonna benefit the health and welfare of the public. I pick a project that we could afford to fund the project and not get in trouble for not having enough funds to fund that project. I’m looking out for the taxpayer on the funding end of it, and I’m looking out for the taxpayer on what projects to fund to protect their health and welfare.
As chairman of finance, I ensured that the MWRD maintains a AAA and AA+ bond rating. I understand pension reform, and I create local jobs and billions to the local economy. My purpose in office is to serve the people. I always wanted to run for office. I had a business for thirty years, and I always wanted to run for office. I knew what I was doing in that office to benefit the public. I’ve been a public servant.
You teamed up with Mayor Deyon Dean and Heather Boyle as a slate. Why did you choose them?
You mentioned about the slating process—we had a commissioner, Tim Bradford, very nice guy. Tim was from the South Side, he was from Rich Township. He passed away, and at slating, they did not slate anyone from the South Side. So I asked [Deyon Dean], would you like to join forces with me and run on a team? He said yes, I said then let’s team up and show them that we were concerned about the whole county. That’s how I came up with Deyon Dean. Deyon Dean is a former Mayor of Riverdale, he understands the problems on the South Side.
Then I teamed up with Heather Boyle, she’s a mother, she has kids. She’s concerned about the health and welfare of her kids, she’s concerned about the family, and she understands the importance of clean water. One of our missions is to protect Lake Michigan. We’re not the water filtration plant, but we protect Lake Michigan. She’s concerned about [how] to protect the kids health-wise.
God made our body sixty-five percent water. Forget about protein, make sure you got water in your body to live. You can live without food for a month. To live without water, you could only live for about three days. So we have a person from the South Side, we have a mother of a family, and we have an engineer. So I think we have a good team.
You talked already about what you’re doing to control flooding, but how do you do that with an eye towards equity in these areas that historically have suffered a lot of the worst flooding?
The South Side gets all the flooding, because all the flow flows south. We started a program where we go into the villages and see what type of projects that we can do with them to help them in terms of flooding. We’re doing a better stormwater management plan, to identify, in all the areas on the South Side, the problem areas. Some of these villages do not have funding to do that, so that’s what we did. We are doing a master plan for all the communities. We’re going to identify problems and solutions and work with them. If they have a location in their community where it identifies a flooding problem, our master plan will show it. We’re going to work with them to see how we could do infrastructure to converge all that water into our system, because we have the Thornton Reservoir and the McCook Reservoir. We’re gonna identify these locations to see how we could transfer that flood water into our system to eliminate the flooding in that area.
Also, we’re going to give them a GIS robot to go into their sewer systems and make sure their sewer systems are clean. Also, Deyon, since he was a mayor, he knows a lot of the mayors here, and he knows how to work with them to identify the problems.
The district has recently focused on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of that is with the biogas operations you mentioned. What else is planned to try to reduce the district’s carbon emissions?
We have reduced our carbon emissions an awful lot. Currently, around thirty to thirty-five percent of the district’s total energy are through the renewable energy sources of biogas and hydroelectricity. I mentioned that Lockport powerhouse, we convert a lot of that water through the lock into energy and sell it back to ComEd. On our biogas, we capture seventy percent of that biogas and convert that to energy. [Ed. note: A MWRD spokesperson told the Weekly that they capture seventy-to-eighty percent of biogas.] We flare the thirty percent away, but when we flare that away, it doesn’t contribute to CO2 because it’s not a fossil fuel flaring. [Ed. note: Flaring biogas does release CO2 from organic sources, but it is not a release of new fossil fuels.] But we’re making a study session now, how to convert that last remaining thirty percent to energy.
We’re upgrading our Stickney plant to curb more emissions. At the Stickney plant, we reduced the carbon footprint by up to 172,000 metric tons of carbon. That’s equivalent to taking 36,000 vehicles driven for one year off the street. We’re developing a comprehensive climate action plan, and sustainability and resilience action plan, to serve as a blueprint for climate action goals. And we’re going to provide that information to the public about the climate change commitment. Let’s face it: climate change is here, and we must act to control climate change for our kids and for our future.
The MWRD owns a lot of land, second only to the Forest Preserves in Cook County. Are there any projects you think the district should pursue with that open space?
We are indeed a major landholder in Cook County. We own approximately 4,900 acres in Cook County, and we own about 450 acres in Dupage County. Currently, we have 179 leases, and we pursue a balanced, mixed-use approach for these non-commercial use properties. We seek to set aside considerable holdings seeks to set aside considerable holdings for pubic access and recreational use by leasing to other governmental entities, while maximizing rental income in those instances where MWRD land is made available for private use.
Over seventy-five percent of MWRD leases are to public entities for public recreation and other public use—seventy-five percent! These leases also require green infrastructure to mitigate flooding. I strongly support leasing to other government entities—it’s a nominal fee to enhance public enhance public access to the waterways, parks, hiking trails, bicycle trails, and other public recreation use.
I strongly support green space and public land. I hesitate to transfer any MWRD land unless it is clear that the land will not one day be needed for MWRD operational purposes, such as future water quality improvement or stormwater management projects. I’m open to collaboration with the Forest Preserves District for stormwater demonstration projects and conservation purposes, and any MWRD land that’s not being used for operational should be utilized for environmental and public use.
Drawing on your eighteen years of experience on the board, what challenges do you see on the horizon for the district?
I’m glad you asked that question, because I’ve been having meetings on the same issue, on how we see the role of wastewater treatment agencies changing over the next ten years. Originally, the wastewater treatment agencies were conceived to deal with wastewater and the human health concerns by transporting and discharging human waste in order to avoid diseases, because, remember, we reversed the river. Since that time, the wastewater agency has expanded to include pollution, flooding, and today wastewater treatment agencies, such as our agency, strive to be anchors of innovation that prioritize clean water, nature-based solutions, watershed-based planning, resource recovery, energy conservation, community engagement, and good union jobs.
The agency of the future will continue to evolve and do more to gain a product at the end of the pipe. What that means is recycling our product—what you guys give us, how do we turn that into a product? We’ll do more to reclaim resources like biosolids, nutrients, energy.
Water resources will become a priority as water will become more precious and in demand. We’re living in God’s country. Of all the surface on the planet, seventy percent is surface water. Just think about that, seventy percent is surface water. One percent of that seventy percent is fresh water, and twenty percent of that one percent is right here in the Great Lakes. Ninety percent of all the surface water in the United States is right here in the Great Lakes. I mean, this is God’s country, and so Illinois could become a leader in water use and reuse by using treated wastewater, stormwater, and gray water for beneficial purposes.
We’re gonna have to start a marketing department to promote resource recovery to the public. We have to have new technology to filter pollution, such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and other emerging contaminants. We need more membrane technology [which] will be used to clean water. We’re gonna have decentralized wastewater treatment systems, where communities can treat water at the point of use instead of sending it over miles of pipe to big facilities. We are changing, our technologies are changing. I see the role of wastewater agencies will not merely be to meet regulatory requirements, but also to make community-based clean water and resource recovery centers that promote resilient and livable communities.
We were conceived just to treat wastewater as a human health concern, but now it’s changing. Today, we want to do nature-based solutions, watershed-based planning, resource recovery, energy conservation, community engagement—everything. And also, technology, computerization. Before we had five people to do some type of work, now because of computerization, you may only need one person. These are the things that have been changing.
That’s why it’s important to go into schools. I’m planning to go into schools. We’re planning to set up a program to go and educate our grammar schools kids and to give them what they could take up when they want to go to school. Maybe they want to go to school or take up a trade, and they could become an engineer or a scientist or a research person or marketing person. They could work toward the environment.
I’m very involved in Future City, it’s a program we have every year. I’m one of the final judges. We invite sixteen to twenty-five schools [in Illinois] to come in and design a future city. This year, it was about water. The school that won first place here, for our area, was from Alsip. Every school was excellent, but Alsip was the winner, and they had a future city and the theme was around how to use water to plan your city, how to use water for transportation, for growing your crops, for drinking purposes, for energy, and they had boys and girls who, when they came up to give their presentation, they knew more than me. I said, “my God,” and these are sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. It was excellent, and we have it every year. They come all the way down from Champaign, all the way down from Saint Louis, Wisconsin, but we have it here in Chicago.
Sam Joyce is the nature editor and a managing editor of the Weekly. He last covered the closure of Pullman café bakery ‘Laine’s Bake Shop and an exhibit of macro-photography at a Kenwood church for the Weekly’s Arts Issue.