Rain Check: Regional Solutions to Stormwater Management

MPC Research Assistant Matt Nichols authored this post

Imagine a Chicago where a long-polluted river serves as a genuine second waterfront for residents to enjoy.  Think of what could be possible if every property owner captured and re-used the thousands of gallons of rain water that falls on their property, rather than letting it run down the drain. Envision a metropolitan region completely free from sewer overflows that have been all-too-common – and costly – for municipalities and homeowners alike. These are just some of the ambitious – but concrete and achievable – goals that water utility leaders from Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland declared for their cities at a Sept. 13 roundtable hosted by Openlands and the Metropolitan Planning Council.  Although the panelists painted a broad picture of the current state of public water reclamation utilities in the Midwest, they also offered a glimpse at the innovative practices their cities are embracing to strive toward sustainability and deal with aging infrastructure.

Those cutting-edge techniques include green infrastructure, like rain barrels and green roofs; waste-to-energy production that turns wastewater facility byproducts into valuable resources; and stormwater fees to encourage sustainable development and finance new investments in grey and green infrastructure to prevent flooding. Kevin Shafer of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and Kellie Rotunno of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) recognized the continued importance of so-called grey infrastructure, like pipes, reservoirs, and deep tunnels, calling these assets the “backbone” and “superhighways” of their respective systems.  However, they both agreed with David St. Pierre of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) that green infrastructure is “the only solution” to close the gap between current capacity and peak demand – and to eliminate combined sewer overflows that flood streets and basements.

Large precipitation events that strain combined stormwater and wastewater systems are likely to become more frequent due to the effects of climate change.  As St. Pierre noted, Chicago has experienced three 100-year rain storms in the past five years.  (Statistically, there should be a 1 percent chance of a 100-year event in any given year.)

This reality has added urgency to Midwestern cities setting aggressive targets for stormwater management. In Milwaukee, the MMSD already has spent $68 million on private property retrofits to manage rain where it falls.  Both St. Pierre and Rotunno were quick to acknowledge that Milwaukee’s commitment to green infrastructure, dating back to 2002, has made it a national leader in the field.  In Cleveland — an industrial center once infamous for the poor water quality of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River — NEORSD has achieved an 87 percent capture rate for stormwater and intends to increase that to 98 percent by 2036.  While a $3 billion deep tunnel system will play a key role, so too will green infrastructure projects like reclaiming vacant lots and constructing “green streets,” which will account for more than 44 million gallons of stormwater management.

Of course, while green is typically less costly than grey infrastructure, re-envisioning the urban landscape through green infrastructure does have a price tag.  NEORSD is leading the way in innovative financing tools by charging property owners a stormwater fee based on impervious surface area (like concrete sidewalks and driveways and traditional roofs). For an average homeowner, the fee is about $5 per month – not a financial hardship, said Rotunno, but she also admitted that the fee is not enough to motivate property owners to undertake retrofits that would reduce impervious surface.  Like any rate increase, these measures require political will and a pro-active outreach campaign to inform residents about the full cost of the services they receive.

As leaders of regional utilities with service areas that span dozens of communities and hundreds of square miles, all three panelists were cognizant of the scale of the challenges they face.  However, scale also can create opportunities when utilities view sewage as a resource, instead of just waste.  Indeed, the MMSD has committed to run 100 percent on renewable energy sources by 2035 – a sizeable share of which will come from the heat energy in sewage itself.  Likewise, MWRD recently unveiled a new sewerthermal system at the James C. Kirie Water Reclamation Plant; and an improved incineration system in Cleveland will allow for burning biomass to produce energy without the use of fossil fuels.

The packed audience at the roundtable – including engineers, environmentalists and public officials – showed a strong interest in green infrastructure through their questions to the panelists and their post-event survey responses.  Clearly, a diverse coalition of stakeholders supports these ongoing efforts across the Midwest to tackle the challenges of infrastructure, financing and sustainability.  And as David St. Pierre noted, effective change begins with “letting down the drawbridge” to facilitate regional collaboration.

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