Why the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District uses cattle as lawn mowers

This story has been updated to clarify a statement about agency policy.

As you pass the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District processing plant in Hanover Park, you might spot something a little out of place: a herd of over 70 goats and sheep.

But these goats are not lost, they are on the clock.

Every day the animals roam freely and control the vegetation, said Julie Reschke, chief of staff to MWRD commissioner Eira L. Corral Sepúlveda.

Natural solutions like these grazers help maintain the integrity of native landscaping, which helps support stormwater management, Reschke said. The goats are not only profitable, costing $ 95,000 for their 2021 contract, but they are also environmentally friendly.

“Goats help us reduce our use of herbicides, pesticides and fuel for traditional lawn care equipment,” Reschke said.

Goats can access difficult areas that would otherwise be dangerous for their human counterparts. However, staff also do work on the properties.

“The herd will graze on dozens of acres of shrubs, plants and other blooms,” said Reschke, “each animal clearing at least 250 square feet of vegetation per day.”

The response from the community has been “substantial,” Reschke said. The residents were “delighted” to discover the animals.

“It’s a great way to fight climate change. And, what’s more, it’s fun! My kids were so excited to see the goats on duty at the Hanover Park Water Harvesting Plant as we made our way to a neighborhood park. It’s a great way to connect our families to sustainability, environmentalism and the innovative work of MWRD, ”Sepúlveda said.

While observers may be tempted to reach out and stroke the goats, Reschke cautions against this.

“The species of goats and sheep used for this service are not the same as the friendly types seen in petting zoos,” she said. “Please respect the goats’ space and do not try to pet them.”

This is the third year that the water harvesting district has used goats as a maintenance method. In 2019, it started a pilot program at the Lemont plant, and the goats were reused in 2020. This is the first year that the Hanover Park plant has seen the animals.

A second herd is at the Calumet factory. The herds are then directed to the O’Brien factory at Skokie and Thorton Composite Reservoir. The herds stay at each site for two to five weeks.

The use of animals is part of an agency-wide practice to find alternative solutions that support MWRD’s efforts to tackle climate change and increase stormwater management, officials said.

Vegetation Solutions, a Wisconsin-based company, is the herd’s entrepreneur, officials said. The company carried out similar work at O’Hare International Airport.

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