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New climate report got you down?

A unique collaboration offers a model for responding to climate change—and a reason for hope

Flickr user John W. Iwanski (CC)

While you were braving Black Friday shopping lines or indulging in leftovers, you may (or may not) have noticed that the federal government released an alarming new climate change report. The Fourth National Climate Assessment—backed by 13 federal agencies and citing more than 1,000 research studies—definitively states that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the United States. Absent significant additional actions, the potential losses could reach hundreds of billions of dollars per year, human lives lost, and the permanent extinction of some plant and animal species.

How can we avoid such substantial damages, you ask? That all depends on us. Whether or not (and how rapidly) we take action. Whether or not (and by how much) we reduce greenhouse gas emissions. How quickly and equitably we bolster communities’ resilience and improve people’s livelihoods in the face of changes that are already occurring.

The key words? “Take action.” The good news? There are exciting examples of what works to help communities face climate change, and people taking action in our own backyard.

Meet the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, a diverse group of stakeholders coordinating to solve stormwater and flooding challenges in the Calumet region of Chicago’s south side and 37 other municipalities in southern Cook County, IL. The Calumet Stormwater Collaborative has sparked unique partnerships among members ranging from nonprofits to engineering firms to municipal staff to agencies like the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

The group works across traditional boundaries to prepare for more frequent, intense rainfall and spark new investments that improve people’s quality of life. The Calumet Stormwater Collaborative’s unique model offers a path toward adapting to climate change—and a reason for hope as the Great Lakes already starts suffering the consequences of a changing climate.

Our region’s climate change impacts may surprise you

You won’t see hurricanes, storm surges or sea level rise on the list of climate change impacts facing the Great Lakes. Instead, the region is already experiencing increases in total precipitation, increases in heavy storms and increases in average temperatures resulting in frost-free seasons. Add to that, projected long-term declines in lake, snow and ice levels, as well as more frequent summer droughts.

The need is clear for the Great Lakes communities and ecosystems to respond to these changes and prepare for more change coming straight at us.

A recent conference, the Third Annual Great Lakes Adaptation Forum (GLAF), united passionate climate change practitioners and scholars in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and featured members of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative and MPC to present our work.

As I mingled with conference attendees from Cleveland and Detroit, the topic on many people’s minds was increased precipitation. This July, Cleveland received record heavy rains and Detroit saw double the amount of rain typical for September. Closer to home? You may remember how Chicago saw the wettest May on record this year.

Everyone I talked to at the Great Lakes Adaptation Forum wanted to figure out pathways to accelerate regional action and unlock funding for better handling stormwater produced by so much rainfall in pursuit of healthier communities, cleaner water and infrastructure that remains functional in the face of a changing climate.

We have something to say about that.

The need for regional stormwater management

Because stormwater runoff does not adhere to any municipal boundary—instead, simply following the path of least resistance—we must consider solutions both upstream and downstream of where we sit. Basically, we should manage stormwater at a regional scale.

Regional management requires additional resources, not just for adequate planning, but for covering capital expenses for grey and green infrastructure, as well as for the linchpin of said investments: maintenance.

Accelerating regional action. Unlocking funding. Better stormwater management for resilient communities. That squarely describes MPC’s work with the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative in the Calumet region!

Amidst presentations on using adaptation tools and harnessing private investments, the conference organizers invited members of our MPC team and the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative to present on our unique model of regional collaboration for stormwater management. With so much to share about tips for stakeholder engagement and how to write a winning grant proposal, we gladly accepted.

Sharing a real-life success story: How to redirect 2,642,149 gallons of stormwater

Jeff Edstrom, currently with the IDNR Coastal Management Program, Ray Bell who works at Faith in Place, and yours truly representing MPC proudly spoke at GLAF 2018 about what the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative has become and showcased a tangible example of the cross-agency partnerships that grow from the group.

Since 2014, the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative has been convening, breaking down silos across sectors and across municipal boundaries to work together on the vastly complex problem of chronic urban flooding. Member agencies have created new tools like a free Data Mapping Viewer Tool and Stormwater Repository. In March, members organized a hands-on successful training at an on-site forum in an often-flooded Calumet community of East Hazel Crest, Illinois.

The conference audience was particularly amazed by the story Jeff and Ray told of a successful funding proposal that multiple Calumet Stormwater Collaborative members developed which enabled redirecting approximately 2,642,149 gallons of stormwater runoff from local sewer systems in the Chicago region.

Jeff retold seizing the moment to approach Ray about collaborating on a proposal for The Chi-Cal Rivers Fund which supports stormwater management efforts that help to restore the health, vitality and accessibility of the waterways in the Chicago and Calumet region. Jeff had an idea: Imagine churches and other houses of worship with lots of green yards, turf grass, and many times, flooding nearby. Instead image installing rain gardens on the properties and passing out rain barrels to residents in the surrounding communities. Could that make a dent in the amount of stormwater runoff heading to local sewers?

Ray agreed the idea had merit, and by working to leverage Faith in Place’s network of faith communities in the Calumet and beyond, the team could deploy green infrastructure in neighborhoods negatively impacted by flooding. As Ray put it, houses of worship are unique in that they have green space that can be landscaped and retrofitted to better absorb rain water.

Sources of inspiration: Three lessons from a church taking action on stormwater

Audience members were glued to the panel, taking notes on the tips for developing such a grant proposal, how the team conducted stormwater audits for houses of worship and calculated the potential for diverting stormwater from nearby sewers thanks to new rain gardens being planned.

For two years, Ray and Jeff worked with various member agencies of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, like the Center for Neighborhood Technology, MWRD and OAI, Inc. to prepare a proposal. Some organizations brought research or community outreach expertise, others helped create the rain garden design and maintenance plans. It was a classic, all-hands-on-deck moment of cross-agency collaboration.

Their hard work paid off—literally! The grant was approved for $250,000 and the team got straight to work expanding their collaboration to include engaging residents, youth and houses of worship. All told, five rain gardens were installed, and partners distributed rain barrels to community members in the neighborhoods surrounding nine houses of worship.

Ray closed the panel by highlighting the lessons he learned from this process:

  • Warming up to green infrastructure: it takes time for residents to fully understand and appreciate what a rain garden can really do, and how they will benefit from what seems at first like an unattractive pile of weeds.
  • Education is key: Faith in Place structured a lot of education and training as part of the project. As residents learned more about what a rain garden does, how a rain barrel functions, and how to maintain them, they felt ownership of the investments and wanted to see them succeed
  • Moving at the speed of church: recognizing how and at what speed the stakeholders you ultimately want to work with operate by is paramount. Meeting people where they are at and bringing everyone along in the journey is more successful in the long run, even if it means you’re moving at the speed of church!

No single person, agency or community can do this work alone. It takes all of us to build the trust, ask the critical questions, tap new resources, think creatively and rally the action of others outside our typical circles. Luckily, the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative is seen as a role-model in taking the action our planet desperately needs right now with success stories that inspire us to do more.

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