By Matt Nichols
You don’t have to be an expert in stormwater management to make improvements that can help prevent flooding in your neighborhood. With assistance from a slew of project partners who have diverse expertise and missions, the City of Blue Island, Ill., in south suburban Cook County, is energizing community members to be part of an effort to reduce flooding in one city neighborhood. Known as Blue Island, Blue Water, this Illinois Millennium Reserve model project is using native gardens, rain barrels, and other green infrastructure to reduce the frequency and severity of costly sewer and basement back-ups, all while beautifying the neighborhood and empowering local residents.
Balancing natural assets and industrial roots
When Bob Manthei left a career in sales at an international manufacturing firm to become director of the Blue Island Park District 14 months ago, he knew his day-to-day responsibilities would be much more diverse and hands-on. However, Manthei was excited to work for the city he has long called home. “I’ve been a 34-year resident here. My wife and I have raised four children here,” he pointed out on a recent Wednesday afternoon, as he knelt on the ground planting native sedges at a playground on the city’s northeast side. Manthei was not only helping create a beautiful garden for neighborhood residents. He was also expressing the park district’s commitment to improve quality of life for all Blue Island residents by implementing green infrastructure to address local flooding through the city’s Blue Island, Blue Water project.
The Blue Island Park District encompasses a wide variety of facilities and staff dedicated to providing recreational opportunities for the city’s 22,000 residents – especially its youth. Open space and greenways play an important part in that mission, as Blue Island has made a conscious effort to balance its architectural and natural assets – like historic bungalows and the Cal-Sag Channel – with its industrial roots in the heart of Chicago’s Southland. Like many inner-ring suburbs, Blue Island has a lot of impervious surface – areas like streets, parking lots and roofs, which water flows off rather than soaking in. Planting rain gardens and installing rain barrels in public spaces in the city’s hilly northeast neighborhood not only gives that rain somewhere to go, but also shows area residents how they can make small changes on their properties to achieve the same benefits.
A community-driven solution
One of those residents in the northeast corner of Blue Island is Nancy Thompson, whose family has lived in the city for three generations. For Thompson, elected alderman of the 7th Ward in 2011, the Blue Island, Blue Water project is about asking “the people in my ward to take more pride in their property, to take more pride in what’s going on at City Council and throughout the City of Blue Island, because it is greatly needed. We need participation.”
She views the area’s on-going flooding issues as a community problem that requires a community-driven solution. Thompson has seen this “all-hands-on-deck” approach pay off before, for instance when she rallied her neighbors to turn a barren berm into a community garden. She also encourages her neighbors to participate in the Cavalcade of Pride, an annual city-wide event to recognize property owners who have done an exemplary job maintaining their homes and gardens.
In talking to Thompson, her personal investment in her neighborhood is clear. When she retired from her career as a school social worker, she used the extra time in her day to pursue her love of gardening – and later, to run for alderman to give back to the community. As she spread wet newspaper to prevent weeds from sprouting up around the newly planted wildflowers at the playground garden, she commented on how glad she was to see some of her constituents helping with the project, which brought together resources from the city, as well as horticultural experts from the University of Illinois Extension and the Cook County Master Gardeners.
Aging infrastructure, fresh ideas
For Jason Berry, managing stormwater to prevent flooded streets and basements is just one part of a much broader vision for Blue Island. As the city’s zoning administrator and director of special projects, Berry has a long job title, which is appropriate considering the long and diverse list of ideas he always has ready to share. He believes that Blue Island is a truly great place to live, with a walkable downtown shopping district, connections to two commuter rail lines, access to jobs in Chicago and the south suburbs, and recreational opportunities in the Calumet-Saganashkee, or Cal-Sag, corridor.
However, frequent combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to the Cal-Sag, as well as localized flooding and basement back-ups in several of the city’s neighborhoods present a public works challenge, as well as an unwanted expense and major hassle for homeowners. In addition to planting rain gardens, Berry hopes to convince dozens of homeowners to let the city help them connect rain barrels to their downspouts. “If green infrastructure is going to have the impact we want it to have in our community, it’s going to take every resident participating,” Berry pointed out. Blue Island, like the rest of its Cook County neighbors, receives stormwater and wastewater service from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD). MWRD leadership is talking openly about an ambitious goal of achieving 2,000 gallons of on-site rainwater storage on every property in the county– and Berry hopes “Blue Island is on the leading edge of that. I hope this is just the start of an even bigger partnership with MWRD.” Blue Island is getting a head start by planning the tot lot event, as well as similar public green infrastructure installations at the Paul Revere Intermediate and Primary Schools and a neighborhood church.
Keeping water out of sewers also reduces run-off, which in turn reduces pollution in the Cal-Sag Channel. The Cal-Sag is an increasingly popular destination for Chicagoland kayakers and nature lovers, but the channel requires a strong commitment to water quality, since it runs through densely built residential and industrial areas that are potential sources of pollution. Thus, stormwater management in Blue Island represents a key effort in which “local, state and county governments work together to really make an impact in our neighborhoods,” according to Berry.
Partnerships make it possible
On this Wednesday in September, though, Berry’s attention was focused on a much more concrete goal: planting some 700 native grasses, wildflowers, and other drought-resistant perennials, an effort carefully overseen by Nancy Pollard, horticulture professor at the University of Illinois. An expert in native plants and how to care for them, Pollard instructed the team of volunteers on how to create a beautiful rain garden that will last for years with minimal maintenance.
Prior to the planting day, park district staff removed sod and raked the soil to create an even bed. Small, reusable flags showed volunteers where to plant, in accordance with a design from the University of Illinois Extension. The plants were supplied by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources through the Millennium Reserve program. Finally, spreading wet newspaper and straw around the plants created a barrier against weeds and frost. Eventually, this protective layer would “biodegrade and then those plants will all just knit together,” Pollard explains.
For Pollard, who has coordinated several similar community garden plantings in conjunction with the Cook County Master Gardeners, the “totally amazing” reward for the day’s labor was seeing weeks of planning come to fruition, thanks to collaboration with committed partners like the Blue Island Park District and the Metropolitan Planning Council. Furthermore, she is hopeful that volunteers or parents who visit the playground with their children may be inspired to plant a rain garden at home or even become a Cook County Master Gardener.
For an in-depth look at this issue from experts in the field, MPC and Openlands are hosting a roundtable event on Tuesday, Nov. 27, entitled Neighborhood Solutions to Wetter Weather: Local Approaches for Stormwater Management.
- During a one-inch rainstorm, 600 gallons of water fall on a 1,000 square foot roof. With two rain barrels each at four downspouts, you can keep more than 60% of that water out of overflowing sewers and capture it to water your lawn or garden later for free.
- If you and your neighbors commit to install 100 rain barrels on your block, that would capture as much water as a tanker truck – water that’s kept away from building foundations, basements, and backed-up sewers.
- Cook County residents are eligible to purchase discounted rain barrels from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD).
- For information about how to install and maintain a rain barrel at your home, check out this helpful video and this guide from MWRD.
- Planting a native garden can help with stormwater management at home, while beautifying your property at a reasonable cost and without the need for chemicals. Nancy Pollard recommends browsing this list of plants suitable for the Chicago region, then creating a design on paper. Use small flags or stakes to mark out the garden design before digging.