Illinois’ next governor must adopt new paradigm to fix flooding - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Illinois’ next governor must adopt new paradigm to fix flooding

Flickr user Mary Anne Enriquez (cc).

Flooding has become a major issue in the Chicago region. How do we lessen the damage?

Illinois’ flooding issues are widespread, and come in many forms: river flooding, urban street flooding and basement backups. Each flows from a complex interaction of rainfall, infrastructure, landscape and human behavior. Yet when a flood occurs, the people affected want simple answers to a couple of straightforward questions: Who is going to fix this mess? And who is going to prevent this from happening again?

Unfortunately, the answers are rarely clear-cut.

Illinois has 966 publicly owned wastewater treatment plants, 1,742 regulated community water supplies within 33 major watersheds. To regulate these assets, we have local utilities, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, State Water Survey, Dept. of Natural Resources and various health departments. Then there are the Feds—the Army Corps of Engineers, Dept. of the Interior, Dept. of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency. While managing water is no small task, getting all these agencies to coordinate is an even bigger challenge. This quagmire of management agencies fractures the water cycle—and too often undermines our ability to respond in times of crises, leads to inefficient use of resources and buries solutions in a byzantine bureaucracy.

How the state can more efficiently manage its water resources will be among the topics Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Bruce Rauner (R), the state’s frontrunner candidates for governor, will address at the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Annual Luncheon on Aug. 28. I’ll be interested to hear their ideas because solving these issues in Illinois will not be easy.

Nature—and nations such as New Zealand and various Native American tribes—offer instructive lessons. One such example is to organize around natural boundaries, such as watersheds, which are ridges of land that separate waters flowing into different rivers, basins or seas. The Continental Divide is among the most famous watersheds, but in Illinois we have 33 of our own.

Yet consider this: In our region, boundaries for stormwater districts differ from those for sewage districts, which do not coincide with water supply boundaries. All of which fail to align with watershed boundaries.

In addition to a “watershed structure” of management, we will need actual governing and managing to take place. But until we recognize the primacy of the watershed, those first steps toward a solution for northeast Illinois will be near impossible.

So how do we move forward?

First, we must leverage work already done by existing agencies. They harbor a great deal of knowledge, such as where floods are most likely to occur and why. We ought to shape that knowledge into models that can be shared with and understood by the public. Everyone from homeowners to developers must be able to clearly see the risks—and rewards—of our choices.

Second, climate change implications should inform our solutions. Currently, each local, state and federal agency views climate change with its own optics. A consistent approach, based on historical information and predictive analysis, should underlie every agency’s strategic decisions.

Third, we need to understand the role of green infrastructure in our region and how to integrate this into existing systems. Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils and natural processes to manage water; it should complement the role of grey infrastructure—pipes, pumps and sewers. Cities such as Vancouver, Copenhagen, Oslo, Munich and many others have successfully integrated green infrastructure into the public right-of-way and private properties for many benefits. A watershed approach would allow the region to change our paradigm, shifting investments from siloed missions to holistic objectives.

Then we can design real and effective solutions to issues that impact our quality of life. Let’s avoid thumping our chests about how many miles of pipes are replaced (the popular metric), especially if the new pipes are anchored in failing solutions. To pursue truly inspiring solutions, we have to liberate ourselves from preconceived budgets and union constraints. We have to coordinate and work toward a common goal. One good example is the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, comprised of key stakeholders who control land, infrastructure, financing or regulatory powers related to managing stormwater. In six months, the group created a shared action plan for managing stormwater and flooding. It is a useful model for how to align local, county, regional, state and federal governments toward common goals and more effective solutions.

Finally, we need a proper education campaign to clearly articulate to the public what the issues are, what we can achieve and how to get there. If flooding, in all its forms, is the problem to solve, then we should say so—and clearly lay out the whys, whats and whens in an approachable and coherent manner so citizens can weigh the proposed solutions. For example, the North Shore of Chicago has several large stormwater projects and proposals. Their debates reflect many across the nation: What is the role of green infrastructure, and how do greener city policies affect our environment, economy and social structure? There is confusion regarding the benefits and financing of flood solutions. But by broadening our perspective from flooding to watershed management, we are more likely to make valuable investments.

I strongly suggest that Illinois’ next governor consider flooding part of a larger watershed story, and lead the state away from the current morass of water governance toward one based on natural boundaries. Although daunting, it can be done—and it would position Illinois as a global leader in freshwater governance.

Pete Mulvaney leads the sustainable water resource strategies in the Chicago offices of Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), where he designs solutions for a healthy and sustainable world. He spent five years as the Director of Sustainability for the Chicago Department of Water Management and helped start Greenleaf Advisors, a sustainability transaction and advisory firm.


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