We hear a lot these days about stormwater problems—basement backups, combined sewer overflows, overland flooding—and for good reason. Our region’s precipitation patterns are changing; more intense storms are the new normal. At the same time, a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work. While rain is the common element here, these problems all require different solutions. And the more frequently big storms happen, the more pressing the need for comprehensive solutions that both manage rain where it falls and manage stormwater once it enters our local and regional infrastructure systems.
That’s why Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is excited about some major progress in our region in the past few weeks. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), which manages our regional sewer network and is obligated by federal statute to prevent harmful stormwater effects downstream, recently made some big breakthroughs.
Deep quarries like this one in McCook, Ill., will store billions of gallons of combined sewer overflow waters when fully operational.
- The final blasting of the Thornton quarry is a major step toward completing the southern portion of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, which will significantly reduce the incidence of combined sewer overflows into the Calumet watershed upon full completion in 2015 (the McCook quarry, serving northern and western Cook County, should be operational in 2029).
- The recent announcement of MWRD’s intention to enter into more than 40 intergovernmental agreements to help design, finance and build an array of local stormwater projects using both green and grey infrastructure as necessary will lead to tens of millions of dollars in direct investment in targeted solutions. From green infrastructure to ease flooding in a low-lying area of the southern suburb of Blue Island, to resolving basement backups in northeast Winnetka, a northern suburb, to a series of partnerships on Ill. Dept. of Transportation roadway retrofits, MWRD will be scoping out specific solutions to specific problems, and then working hand-in-hand with Cook County communities to get the job done.
- And on Thursday, Oct. 3, the MWRD Board approved a new Watershed Management Ordinance to guide stormwater management investments in new real estate development through Cook County. Developers will receive full credit toward ordinance requirements for any volume of stormwater managed through green infrastructure—a first—and the ordinance includes several other provisions to balance the need for economic redevelopment and more intensive stormwater management. The ordinance will ensure that future development doesn’t exacerbate our current stormwater challenges.
Then, to top it all off, the City of Chicago announced a five-year, $50 million plan to make green
The City of Chicago will invest $50M over 5 years to find ways to integrate green infrastructure into other public projects, including street and sidewalk repair.
infrastructure upgrades to roadway, streetscape and other public right-of-way projects already on the drawing board. Chicago does not face the same federal mandates on downstream water quality that MWRD does, which makes this level of capital investment wholly remarkable. Philadelphia and New York are often touted as models for Chicago to follow when it comes to green infrastructure investment, but this announcement puts Chicago ahead of the curve. Simply put, Chicago doesn’t have to make these investments; it wants to.
Perhaps even more transformative for the long-run, both MWRD and Chicago are also committing to upgrading their respective sewer and landscape modeling processes to better prescribe where green and grey infrastructure investments can most cost-effectively solve specific stormwater problems. That deterministic approach will ensure that in years to come our region invests in stormwater infrastructure where it should, rather than simply where it can. There is still work to be done in ensuring that MWRD, Chicago and the rest of Cook County engage in that process collaboratively. However, given all of this progress, there is ample reason for optimism.
MPC is on the job too, facilitating dialogue between units of government on collaborative stormwater solutions, testing and researching ideas to motivate cost-effective private property solutions for distributed stormwater management, providing technical assistance to Blue Island as they gear up to work with MWRD, and more.
So while our stormwater problems are real, known and present, stormwater solutions are in the works and on their way. MPC commends the leadership and staff of the City of Chicago and MWRD for these bold policy and investment decisions, and we look forward to working with them—and the rest of region—as we buckle down to tackle these challenges together.