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A Flood of Good Ideas

So Cal Metro, Flickr

Here at MPC, we’re used to experiencing déjà vu; through our persistent advocacy over the years, we sometimes find ourselves returning again and again to certain policy levers, strategies, and organizations in our approach to regional problem-solving. But hey, this stuff works.  

The latest example? Stormwater management committees (SMCs). In the early 2000’s, MPC helped to successfully pass Public Act 94-675, granting authority to nine counties beyond the Chicago metropolitan region to establish SMCs: government units specifically designed to combat urban flooding through countywide plans and ordinances, and consolidate the existing municipal stormwater framework. And now we’re ready to do it again.

House Bill 2756 and Senate Bill 1337 are currently making their way through the General Assembly, with the power to grant this authority to the entire rest of the state, as recommended by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in its Report for the Urban Flooding Awareness Act (UFAA Report) and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), which worked on the Report. Sponsored by Representative Mike Fortner (R-West Chicago) and Senator Sue Rezin (R-Grundy and LaSalle Counties), respectively, these bills would give all counties in Illinois the license to develop stormwater management plans and pass ordinances.  The bills allow counties to prioritize  non-floodplain areas: land that is not covered by programs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the use of cost-effective, nature-based solutions to flooding.

Though several counties (Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will) have held this power for over two decades, the passage of PA 94-675 in 2005 was a major victory for ‘rapidly urbanizing’ counties in the state that were experiencing increased frequency and intensity of rainfall events. According to industry leader Scott Goldstein of Teska Associates – MPC’s Vice President at the time of PA 94-675, a major catalyst for the bill’s passage was testimony from stakeholders in counties that had already been given this authority—namely, Lake, DuPage, and Kane Counties. Stories of success in these areas as well as the inclusion of language allowing counties to voluntarily make grants and raise funding for studies in their various municipalities were crucial factors.

Of the nine counties that were granted the new authority under PA 94-675 (Boone, DeKalb, Grundy, Kankakee, Kendall, LaSalle, Madison, Monroe, and St. Clair), four have since established independent stormwater management committees.  Further, five have gone on to either pass county-wide ordinances or implement in-progress management plans that meet or exceed the Phase II standards required of small municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permittees by the U.S. EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. Although SMC’s do not own or operate storm sewer systems (and, thus, are not themselves considered MS4 permittees), they can perform activities related to each of the 6 minimum control measures laid out by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s MS4 permit.

Madison County Stormwater Coordinator Steven Brendel is unequivocally convinced of the bill’s benefit in his area. With an established SMC, the county has been able to complete , with 3 others in progress. Without the authority from the legislation, Brendel notes that Madison would still be addressing stormwater problems on a ‘hit and miss basis’. In DeKalb County, formation of an SMC led to passage of a countywide ordinance in 2006, as well as the implementation of a Stormwater Management Program Plan, currently in its second of three phases. Aside from quarterly meetings, the SMC has acquired responsibility for the DeKalb Urban Area Stakeholders Group, which develops education materials and plans and promotes public events on stormwater management topics such as green infrastructure and stormwater pollution prevention.

Chief among those who recognize the importance of stormwater management at the county level is CNT, which completed a study of the Prevalence and Cost of Urban Flooding in Cook County in 2014.   The study mapped five years of data from the flood damage claims paid out by private insurance companies, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), FEMA’s Disaster Relief Program and the Small Business Administration’s Disaster Loan Program.  CNT made a surprising finding: that nearly 70% of the claims they looked at were outside of any floodplain.  At CNT’s suggestion, this was followed in 2015 by the IDNR’s statewide study and UFAA Report, which found that more than 92% of the claims paid out across the State for flood damages by private insurers and NFIP were outside any floodplain.  The UFAA Report provided a number of recommendations, one of which is “to grant stormwater planning and management authority to all Illinois counties to adopt countywide stormwater ordinances, projects and programs.” CNT’s Manager of Water Policy, Hal Sprague, and Loren Wobig and Brad Winters of IDNR collaborated with State Senators Heather Steans and Sue Rezin and State Representatives Mike Fortner and Kelly Cassidy to address that recommendation, and the result is SB 1337 and its companion HB 2756. 

Nothing is quite so easy in Springfield, and there are several amendments to the bill being prepared.  For example, the grant-making authority will be modified and apply to (1) municipalities located partially or wholly within a mapped floodplain and which are members of the National Flood Insurance Program, (2) other municipalities that have adopted the county stormwater management plan, (3) non-profit organizations and (4) private landowners, and all grants must be used in a manner consistent with the plan.  The latter requirement in particular ensures that these ordinances include initiatives that intentionally address issues that are matters of concern for the entire county. Another amendment will give drainage districts and soil and water conservation districts membership in any county stormwater management planning committee established after the effective date of the legislation.  Yet another amendment, requested by the Illinois Association of Realtors and the Home Builders Association of Illinois, would require counties that are not subject to the Illinois MS4 permit to pass a referendum before exercising their countywide stormwater authority.   

In addition to providing support for these bills and most of their various amendments this week in Springfield, MPC is hard at work advocating for more effective stormwater management in a variety of capacities. In an earlier blog post, we detailed our successful acquisition of Section 319 EPA funding to complete four regional watershed plans over the next two years, as well as our on-going facilitation of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative. As we see how SB 1337/HB 2756 fare in the legislature, it is inevitable that the aftermath will affect our work, and the communities we seek to help. Stay tuned for more from us on all stormwater fronts, and lend your voice to the flood of support!  

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