Kimberly Neely Du Buclet is one of ten Democratic candidates currently vying for three spots on the board of commissioners that oversees the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. One of three incumbent commissioners seeking re-election this year, DuBuclet was first elected in 2018 to fill the two remaining years of Cynthia Santos’s term after Santos was appointed to the Illinois Pollution Control Board by then-Governor Bruce Rauner. She’s now seeking a regular six-year term, and has been endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Before she was elected to the board, Du Buclet worked as the director of legislative affairs at the Chicago Park District. From 2011 to 2013, she also served as the state representative for the 26th District, which includes parts of South Chicago, South Shore, Woodlawn, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Bronzeville, and the Gold Coast.
Can you describe your background and interest in the work of the MWRD?
I am a native Chicagoan from the very far South Side, the Southeast Side of Chicago, kind of near 87th and Stony Island. I grew up in a home out that way that flooded frequently, just about every time it rained. It was such a burden on my family, trying to figure out how to stop the flooding, so home flooding has always been a very personal cause for me. And as our cities, especially in Chicago, become more and more urbanized and we’re using more and more asphalt and other surfacing that’s not permeable, and as we’re getting more frequent—what used to be hundred-year storms [are] now one-year storms—all of this became an issue for me.
I should add to that that, when I was a state representative down in Springfield, I was very proud to receive a hundred-percent voting record from the Illinois Environmental Council because I was a strong advocate for environmental issues. And finally, when this current administration was voted into office in November 2016 and sworn in in January, and they immediately started to roll back the protections that have been in place for over a decade, it really became concerning to me that we needed people at the local and state level to protect our water and our environment, since that wasn’t happening at the federal level.
Could you talk about your accomplishments over your last two years on the board, and why you decided to seek a full term?
I was the chairperson of the watershed management ordinance, and we just recently revised that. Voting on the Inspector General and on the ethics ordinance—all of those things are things that I’m proud of since I’ve been a board member. I’m also proud of our continued investment in our Space To Grow program, which helps build playgrounds in communities of color using permeable pavement. One thing that I’m going to continue to pursue, as the only African-American woman on the ballot, is to really talk about environmental justice issues in underserved areas. Those are the things I’m working on, those are the things that I’m proud of, and I hope that I can continue to work on them in my capacity as a water reclamation commissioner.
As you mentioned, urban flooding is a major issue, particularly on the South Side. The MWRD is continuing to expand McCook Reservoir as part of the “Deep Tunnel” project to capture and store excess stormwater, but apart from building more reservoirs, what creative solutions can the MWRD pursue to minimize urban flooding?
Urban flooding can be influenced by how water flows, by aging and inadequate water infrastructure, new development that creates more water runoff, and of course climate change that creates these heavier storms. Green infrastructure, I believe, is one solution.
What does green infrastructure look like? What’s an ideal green infrastructure project on the South Side?
We could talk about permeable pavements for alleys, we could talk about green roofs, we could talk about the partnership we have with Robbins. We partnered with the [Village] of Robbins to work with the community and stakeholders to produce a community plan that addresses their flooding challenges, but also takes into consideration how, by mitigating or by helping them with their flooding issue, the local municipality is hoping that will increase their economic development.
Last summer, the district discussed seeking a five-year variance from the water quality standard for chloride because of the heavy use of road salts during winter in the Chicago area. What is the district doing to reduce the use of road salts, and will you be able to meet that standard in the future?
We’ve been increasing our use of road salts, which break down into chlorides, which has a negative impact on our fish and wildlife in the waterways around Chicago. What we’re doing is raising awareness of this problem by partnering with the Lower Des Plaines River watershed group and a group called the SaltSmart Collaborative to provide tips on the overuse of these harmful salts. We’re also trying to work with local municipalities and the CAWS chloride watershed group to help come up with solutions. I think that we must be much more innovative in seeking solutions that would incentivize municipal governments that are currently using road salts to stop using [them] as much.
So we have a couple partnerships, but I think there also needs to be an awareness program, and we need to somehow incentivize these municipalities not to do it as much.
Is that something that the district can do, or is that something where you’d need action at a state level?
I’m guessing that would have to be a state initiative, but I’d have to research that further.
From chlorides, we can also talk about phosphorus—I know the MWRD reached a settlement with environmental groups in 2017. What progress has been made since then?
There’s an ongoing nutrient loss reduction strategy for 2019, and it shows that we have reduced it well below [the settlement’s interim goal of] 0.5 milligrams per liter at our largest plant at Stickney [in Cicero] and Kirie [in Des Plaines]. We were able to achieve that through the opening of our Stickney nutrient recovery facility through the agreement in 2017. It recovers phosphorus from wastewater and transforms it into fertilizer.
The district has made a lot of progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. What more can the district do to reduce its emissions, and do you see a role for the district in encouraging alternative energy?
MWRD should serve as a role model for emissions reduction. We are projected to lead the way in cutting greenhouse emissions by a projected fifty percent from our 2005 levels, after we complete the replacement of some aging infrastructure at our water recovery plants. This, and other energy efforts, will put us well ahead of what was agreed to during the Paris Agreement, which was to lower gas emissions by twenty-eight percent by 2025.
But it’s still a long way from being carbon neutral, so there’s a number of opportunities that we can do. Increased use of biogas and solar appear to be the most viable and the most promising, along with continued generation of electricity from water in our Lockport Powerhouse. I support efforts that we’re doing to solicit proposals to help develop a solar plant on vacant MWRD land in Crest Hill near the Des Plaines River.
That was actually my next question—since the MWRD is the second-largest landowner in Cook County, are there any specific projects you think should be pursued with that land?
The project I just mentioned, to develop a solar plant on vacant MWRD land. But just in general, I support the protection of MWRD lands as open space, so we can allow community uses and long-term uses that comply with our leasing policy and the state’s leasing statute. If we lease the property under our supervision, we can protect it while still allowing development to take place.
In 2018, the Green Party slate raised the issue of pay-to-play politics at the MWRD, alleging that commissioners were taking money from contractors with business before the board. Do you think there should be rules limiting or prohibiting these kinds of contributions?
Transparency is always critical for local elected officials, especially here at MWRD. We just voted, for the first time in the district’s 130-year history, to establish an independent inspector general. The intergovernmental agreement with Cook County provides independent oversight. This initiative has been in the process for many years, but I was certainly proud, as you can imagine, to have the opportunity as a commissioner to vote for it. Having an IG is good government, and I think every other agency in the city and the county has one. It allows us to implement best practices in governance and oversight, because we are financial stewards for the financial resources from our taxpayers.
We also, this year, amended our ethics ordinance, so lobbyists have to register for the work that they’re advocating for. Before, lobbyists didn’t have to register, so we’re much more transparent about it. I think that these two things are certainly steps in the right direction and I’ll, of course, continue to promote best practices for accountability.
We’ve covered a lot of issues, but what are the other challenges that you see on the horizon for the district that I didn’t bring up, that voters might not be thinking about, but that will impact the district in your next term?
Obviously climate change is an issue that we’re all going to be dealing with over the next few years, and requires change to stormwater management. Stormwater management is crucial to protecting our water, as well as our health and community, and so dealing with stormwater management is going to require us to use very creative and unique approaches for the residents and local governments working together to address these challenges. We all face the challenges of climate change.
I think we should do more to prevent stormwater from entering our overburdened system. Maybe we could provide tax credits or rebates for the inclusion of green infrastructure, maybe we could provide tax credits for permeable pavement, or for redevelopment in line with the watershed management ordinance. By doing so, we’ll allow water to be captured and stored, as opposed to running into our sewer system.
I also think, in conclusion, that we can lead the effort to promote green building codes throughout Cook County. It’s my mission to continue to work with these suburban counties and municipalities to adopt policies that we can use to promote permeable pavement, green buildings, and other environmental best practices.
One final question, about being on the ballot: you’re running a campaign in a county of more than 5 million people, and it’s certainly not as glamorous as all the presidential campaigns on the ballot. How do you get your name out there?
It is challenging—it’s the second-largest county in the United States, behind Los Angeles County. We are downballot, so you have to get past the presidential election, and your state reps, and the ordinances, and committemen, and the judges, and once you flip and flip and flip and flip you get to us. [Ed. note: MWRD candidates appear before other countywide offices, like State’s Attorney and Clerk of the Circuit Court, as well as judicial and committeeperson races.] So it’s incumbent on me to get my name out, and the work that we do, the best I can. I’m thankful for organizations like yours that are actually paying attention to this race, because what we do impacts every single one of us every day, and most people don’t know that. Protecting the environment and addressing climate change is one of the most critical challenges in our lifetime, and it will take leadership from everyone to address these risks that we all face.
I’m always happy to go speak to community groups, not necessarily in a political role, but in my official role to talk about what water reclamation does, and also to educate young kids of color, any other kids, to talk about STEM careers and young women in STEM. I’m doing all I can to get the word out, not only about what we do but what I do as a commissioner.
Sam Joyce is a managing editor and the nature editor of the Weekly. He last covered Hyde Park & Kenwood for the 2019 Best of the South Side issue.