Photo credit: Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
On S. Escanaba Avenue in Chicago’s South Chicago neighborhood, Greg Bratton tends to a 1,700-sq.-ft. garden filled with rapidly growing tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, corn, squash, watermelon and other produce.
The site – which also includes a few chickens and an exceedingly vocal rooster – features a soil mixture that uses a base composed of biosolids, a compost-like product of wastewater treatment produced by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD). It’s part of what is increasingly becoming known as resource recovery, which, in this case, involves recovering valuable resources in “used” water.
The mission of the MWRD is to protect the health and safety of the public, protect the quality of the water supply source (Lake Michigan), protect businesses and homes from flood damage and manage water as a vital resource. Resource recovery – including the reuse of biosolids - is a burgeoning part of MWRD’s work. Through its work with biosolids and other efforts, MWRD is retaining nutrients and organic matter that are part of its water treatment process. The MWRD is finding new uses from these products that were formerly considered waste. (Other recovered resources include phosphorus, nitrogen, algae and energy.)
“Resource recovery is still catching on in the world, but in the wastewater industry it’s really taken hold,” says Dan Collins, managing civil engineer with MWRD. “I like to think we are ahead of the curve.”
Last year, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation (specifically Public Act 99-0067) that amended the Illinois Environmental Protection Act to recognize exceptional quality (EQ) biosolids as a resource and not a waste. This legislation recognizes that biosolids are a safe, beneficial and renewable resource that should be used locally. The legislative amendment led the way for nutrient rich EQ biosolids to be available to the public for growing food crops and maintaining healthy lawns.
The mix of treated biosolids and wood chips produced by MWRD creates an odor-free compost, says Collins. The agency says biosolids are a sustainable alternative to chemical fertilizers.
“The result is a product that is safe for the environment. I even use it on my own lawn and garden,” Collins says. “Right now, we are giving it away. But you could charge a premium price for this product, and people would want it.”
For Bratton, using soil that includes biosolids is part of an overall effort to attract neighbors to the world of urban farming. He supplements the biosolids mixture from MWRD with wood ash and worms. His group, ChicaGRO Intergenerational Growing Projects, oversees 72 community gardens in the region. Thus far, 30 youth from the South Chicago neighborhood have volunteered at the Escanaba site.
“The kids have been growing lettuce, and it’s really doing well,” says Bratton. “They even showed me that you can put lettuce on hot dogs.”
Biosolids are being used in many places, including golf courses, athletic fields and parks, such as the new Maggie Daley Park in Chicago. The Village of Midlothian used MWRD biosolids to renovate five softball and baseball fields in 2012.
MWRD is also finding other reuses for these resources that tie directly into its mission of managing water. This spring, MWRD started giving away 18-inch oak saplings to municipalities, community groups and schools. Through the agency’s “Restore the Canopy: Plant a Tree” program, saplings are distributed in either one-gallon pots with the biosolids compost blend or in bags of 100 individual saplings.
The oak saplings have the potential to last and grow – and help restore the urban and suburban tree canopy that is crucial to the region. (Full-grown oak trees can range from 50 to 80 feet tall.) Another reason why the program is especially important is that emerald ash borer has wiped out 13 million trees in the region, according to the agency.
Karen Pender, administrator at Calvary School in South Holland, says her community is benefiting from this MWRD program. The trees, Pender says, initially show little or no growth, but by year three the saplings take off. She adds that these oak trees can absorb so much rainfall (up to 2,800 gallons of water annually) that they can help prevent flooding while restoring the county’s tree canopy. Trees also keep neighborhoods cooler, provide oxygen and provide protection from the wind. (Managing stormwater and preventing flooding is not only a part of MWRD’s mission, but it’s also a priority of Millennium Reserve.)
MWRD provides residents who receive the trees with information on how to care for them. Saplings can be delivered to municipalities, schools and community organizations or picked up at MWRD water reclamation plants on Wednesday mornings.
In addition, a GIS feature that shows where trees have been planted will soon be available on the MWRD website, www.mwrd.org
“Being a gardener, I’m always trying to make sure kids are aware of the environment,” says Pender. “For children to team up and plant trees and flowers – that makes them aware of their surroundings. And you should have seen the excitement when we passed them out.”
If you’re interested in using MWRD’s EQ biosolids, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To participate in the “Restore the Canopy: Plant a Tree” program, contact email@example.com. For questions about either program, you can also call 312-751-6633.