Urban flooding: It’s not just in your basement - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Urban flooding: It’s not just in your basement

Flickr user Clark Maxwell (CC)

This scene in the western suburb of Elmhurst, Ill., illustrates the need for green infrastructure in our communities.

Given yesterday’s downpour, it’s maybe not so surprising that between 2007 and 2014, more than 90 percent of urban flooding damage claims were filed for properties outside the floodplain. In other words, urban flooding is a complex problem that needs to be addressed at the neighborhood and regional level. So says the Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources in its recent Illinois Urban Flooding Awareness Act Report, published in response to the Urban Flooding Awareness Act passed on Aug. 3, 2014.

This report contains the most up-to-date research and findings on urban flooding in Illinois, outlining the current state of Illinois’ stormwater and urban flooding issues and identifying resources and new technologies that could help alleviate these problems. It acknowledges the challenges that the state faces under existing policy, land use and socioeconomic constraints, but also sheds light on financial, educational and on-the-ground opportunities for more effective flood mitigation and planning.

The urban flooding report was a collaborative effort across multiple state and regional agencies. It breaks down flooding into three sections—past, current and future; effectiveness of projects, programs and policies; and strategies for reducing urban flood damages—followed by a complete list of recommendations.

Perhaps one of the greatest takeaways from this report is that no one entity is responsible for urban flooding; rather it is a responsibility that should be shared by numerous stakeholders across the region. This includes individual property and business owners as well as government units at local, state and federal levels.

While most of the information presented in the report is not new to those seeking sound solutions to flood and stormwater issues, it’s significant that multiple units of government at the state level are collectively acknowledging the severity of urban flooding. As the impact of global climate change continues to exacerbate Illinois’ persistent flooding problems, this collective understanding from our state leaders will be vital for making the shift toward a more resilient region.

Regionally, the report validates much of the work that the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative—a group of key stakeholders coordinating land, infrastructure, investment tools, community outreach platforms or regulatory powers related to stormwater in Chicago’s Southland—has accomplished and will be pursuing as we head into 2016.

There is a consistent call from the report for educating the public about flooding, coordinating across government agencies and communities and establishing new funding mechanisms to support programs and data collection efforts aimed at preventing or reducing flooding in Illinois’ near future. The collaborative, of which the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is a part, identifies nine Work Groups with their 2015-2016 Work Plan that are tackling a wide range of projects geared toward advancing these exact efforts.

Community Outreach and Education

The Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources’ urban flooding report identifies that between 2007 and 2014, there has been more than $2.3 billion in documented flooding damages, most of which was a result of basement flooding and sewer back-ups on private property. The report recommends a series of flood reduction strategies for an individual property owner, and emphasizes the importance of educating property owners about flooding, including prevention and maintenance strategies that can reduce an individual’s flood risk. Along with property owners, the report calls for communities to continue participating in existing flood prevention programs (e.g. the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program and Community Rating System) to ensure greater property coverage across the state.

Home retrofit improvements such as this one in Chatham on Chicago's South Side can help reduce basement floods.

The Calumet Stormwater Collaborative’s Work Group—Community Engagement, Planning and Implementation—led by Center for Neighborhood Technology, are using the RainReady program to educate homeowners about the ways in which they can prevent flooding through individual property assessments that help identify flood reduction strategies specific to the property at hand. Other collaborative members such as Elevate Energy and Historic Chicago Bungalow Association have partnered to do similar work for bungalow-style homes—a distinct architectural style that is abundant across Northeastern Illinois’ metropolitan and suburban landscapes.

A team of researchers and planners from University of Illinois, Chicago, who are also members of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, are developing a tool that fosters collaborative action at the neighborhood level. As community members use the tool to engage in the planning process, it encourages users to view flooding as a shared problem and enables them work toward solutions collaboratively. In upcoming months, the university team is looking to pilot this tool so it can be refined and become more replicable across a wide range of communities within Northeastern Illinois.

Improving Urban Flooding Analysis: Data Collection, Technology and Design Standards

While there is a need for increased education and awareness of urban flooding risk and mitigation strategies, there also is a need for improved data collection and tools to more accurately and efficiently plan and design infrastructure for stormwater management. A few of the methods and available data sources highlighted in the report are currently being explored and refined by the collaborative and its members.

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and Cook County, is exploring a soil mapping and data collection project. Green infrastructure’s effectiveness depends on soil conditions, and this data would prove highly beneficial for designing effective green infrastructure.

Meanwhile, other collaborative members are developing other datasets and tools that will improve green infrastructure planning and flooding mitigation efforts. Morton Arboretum has completed topographic LiDAR datasets for Cook County’s tree canopy which can help with more strategic placement of green infrastructure. And Center for Neighborhood Technology continues to develop a real-time monitoring system to predict and warn homeowners when their property is at risk.

The integration of green infrastructure projects where feasible is frequently cited by the report; however, it can be costly given that nearly all projects require engineering specs and approval. Led by the Delta Institute, the Green Infrastructure Design Template Work Group recently completed design templates for different types of green infrastructure (e.g. stormwater detention basins, bioswales, permeable pavers). The intent is to reduce redundancy in engineering efforts for green infrastructure, cut transaction costs and speed up the planning and implementation for communities seeking green infrastructure stormwater solutions. The templates are engineering drawings that are accessible to communities in Northeastern Illinois and other communities within the Great Lakes Region.

The report also points out that reduced urban flooding damages can often be difficult to evaluate at a large scale. Fortunately, the Data Sharing and Modelling Work Group has been focusing on three projects to increase the availability of existing data and models that could improve communication and coordination across flood mitigation projects and strategies. These include a) the development of a data layer encompassing all stormwater-related layers; b) an online GIS mapping platform to view layers that are pivotal to stormwater management; and c) a comprehensive spreadsheet of data to support stormwater planning. These sound pretty dry, but they’ll help provide stormwater managers throughout the Calumet with critical information for making sound decisions.

Stormwater infrastructure financing

In line with the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative’s mission, the urban flooding report expresses a need to employ financing mechanisms and programs to better combat urban flooding as well as support education and outreach. The report found that many communities take on stormwater projects at a project-by-project level without consistent funding resources. Many of the financing recommendations found within the report have been popular discussion topics among collaborative members in recent months and will continue to be at the forefront toward the end of 2015.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund is an option that the report encourages municipalities, communities, nonprofits and property owners to use. This is a program that provides low-interest loans through the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 for projects that contribute to water quality improvement and the goals of the Clean Water Act.

MPC, in partnership with the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency and Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, has been exploring ways to make this funding more readily accessible and equitable to community water service utilities in Illinois. A recent whitepaper, Let the Dollars Flow, particularly recommends establishing guidance documentation for stormwater project applications that incorporate green infrastructure, including best practice guidelines, a filled-out application packet example and information about revenue requirements and options.

Moving forward with cross-governmental collaboration

The report was a collaborative effort across multiple state and regional agencies including, but not limited to, Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Illinois Housing Development Authority, Illinois Department of Insurance, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and Illinois State Water Survey.

The report concludes that there is no one “single solution to urban flooding.” We will need to continue working together and making strategic investments in both green and grey infrastructure, as well as education and financing programs to ensure that the state of Illinois becomes a more equitable and resilient place to live.

MPC, as a member and facilitator of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, is appreciative that the report aligns with the collaborative’s ongoing goals, completed projects and upcoming endeavors. It is encouraging to see state officials developing agendas and dedicating investments that push for more effective stormwater management and mitigation planning to overcome urban flooding.

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