Water Guardian Debra Shore Builds Coalitions to Protect Our Most Vital Resource—and You Can Help

we got goals debra shore

We play volleyball on the beach and stand-up paddle board in the lake, run miles and drink rosé along the Riverwalk. This spring, storms sprung up approximately every other day, saturating us (May was the wettest on record, since we began keeping track in 1871).

It’s easy, in Chicago, to take water for granted—we’re surrounded by it.

But Debra Shore, a commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago since 2006, cautions us against this carelessness, especially in the face of climate change. On this week’s episode of #WeGotGoals, Shore implores us to be more thoughtful about how we use and protect this vital resource. 

After all, our bodies are made up of 50 to 60 percent water, and there are more humans than ever to soak it all up.

“There are no substitutes for fresh water and it’s the substance on which almost all life depends,” she said. “Whether we are good stewards or not is going to be increasingly important in the future.”

If you’re wondering exactly what the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is, you’re not alone—Shore admits she frequently has to explain the agency’s work. When we decided to do a segment on creating a better earth, I knew I wanted to have her on to educate us. The MWRD, as it’s known, is charged with both protecting the water we drink and reclaiming what falls from the sky.

The agency’s roots go back to 1889. As Chicago’s population first began to boom, its residents dumped waste of all types—human, animal, and industrial—into the river, which flowed into Lake Michigan. Then, as now, the lake served as the source of our drinking water. 

“Not a good idea to put raw sewage into your drinking water,” Shore said. “And indeed, people were getting sick from cholera and typhoid and other waterborne diseases. So the city planners at the time knew that Chicago could not continue to grow if they didn’t have a safe, secure source of drinking water.”

Officials came up with an ingenious plan—in a brilliant feat of engineering, they dug canals that reversed the flow of the river, carrying these toxins away from the lake instead. And, they established the Sanitary District of Chicago, which would later become the MWRD, to stand guard over the drinking-water supply. 

Now, the MWRD oversees wastewater treatment and stormwater management for a massive 882.1-square-area encompassing Chicago and 128 suburbs. That’s a total of 10.35 million people whose hydration needs the agency meets (and whose basements it keeps from flooding).

Shore’s personal interest in conservation began back in her Brownie days, where she and her troopmates collected leaves and learned about nature on hikes. Her best friend’s family brought her on frequent camping and backpacking trips to places like Colorado and New Mexico.

After she moved back to her native Chicago in 1982 (she spent some time in Dallas, Baltimore, and Providence), Shore aimed to commune with the landscape around her. “I found out about a group of volunteers who go out to the Cook County Forest Preserves and engage in habitat restoration, trying to restore health to the remnant prairies and oakwoods and wetlands that are part of our precious forest preserve system,” she said.

She found the work purposeful and personally therapeutic: “A writer named Bill Jordan has said that restoration is a reciprocal act, that in working to restore nature, it restores us, our bodies and our spirits. I certainly found that to be true.”

That led her to help launch a quarterly publication called Chicago Wilderness in 1997, and eventually, to run for office. Those in power didn’t always listen to the on-the-ground experiences of forest preserve volunteers, she realized; she suspected that with her conservation background, she could make a difference.

So she participated in a candidate training program called the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership, through the Democratic Women in Illinois. She wasn’t sure exactly where to plug in until someone approached her in 2005 about running for a seat on the MWRD.

She began harnessing her various social networks—the conservation community, the LGBTQ community, the Jewish community, and politically minded people she’d met through volunteering for presidential candidate Howard Dean—to build the support she’d need to win a countywide election. (Which she did, handily, and has then been re-elected twice  since.)

Assembling coalitions has also been an important part of her work as a commissioner, helping her achieve some big goals during her 12 years of service, Shore told me. One accomplishment she’s particularly proud of is an ordinance to expand a safe, secure collection program to dispose of unused or expired medicine, which otherwise pollutes our water and harms the health of humans, animals, and plants. 

Pharmaceutical companies weren’t in favor, in part because similar programs in other states require them to pay for these efforts to collect and dispose of the drugs.

“This fits within this model called product stewardship, where the maker of a product, whether it’s paint or tires or electronics, should be responsible for the whole life cycle of the product,” she said.

To move the process along, Shore and her fellow board members emphasized the broad nature of the problem.

“One of the things we learned is that 50 percent of the people who become addicted to prescription drugs start with the drug dealer in their own home, namely their medicine cabinet,” she said.

So, they enlisted public safety experts, police and sheriff departments, and public health departments, along with representatives of the environmental community.

“We had a broad and diverse coalition of people who came to the county board and provided testimony and lent their names in support of this. And it’s really hard to object to something like that,” she said.

If you’re inspired to do more by these types of arguments or the threat of climate change, Shore has advice for you. For one thing, vote for public officials who pledge to protect the earth. You can educate yourself by reading the annual reports Shore writes each year—they are incredibly well-crafted and engaging—and signing up for her email newsletter.

There, she shares important updates as well as everyday actions we can all take to be more mindful of our water use and minimize our impact on climate change. Some she divulged on the show include:

  • Run the dishwater only when it’s full; similarly, don’t do half-loads of laundry
  • Collect the water that runs before your shower heats up and use it to water plants or flush toilets
  • Cut down on car use; consolidate your errands or take public transit instead
  • If you own your own home, switch to low-flow toilets, and consider more natural landscaping instead of a lawn

Listen to the full episode for more on Shore’s journey and her practical advice, including an answer to the age-old question of whether it’s better to throw food scraps away or use your garbage disposal, if you have one. And if you like what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review the show on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts—that helps other goal-getters find the show.

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About Cindy Kuzma

Cindy Kuzma is a freelance health and fitness writer and a contributing editor at Runner’s World magazine. She grew up in Texas and moved to Chicago to earn her master’s in journalism at Northwestern University; once she saw the lakefront running trail, she decided to stay. She’s finished 19 marathons and also loves lifting heavy weights, yoga, live music and running to the Green City Market from Andersonville and taking the bus home with a ridiculous haul of fresh veggies. Cindy is the producer and co-host on aSweatLife's podcast, #WeGotGoals. She’s written for Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Prevention, Shape and other publications as well—you can read her work at www.cindykuzma.com.