Big plans for a flood-prone region - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Big plans for a flood-prone region

Members of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative have recently worked together on a long-range, three-year shared vision. Read on for a look at what's on deck to #EndCalumetFlooding.

In July 2018, some members of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative toured Pullman and wielded rakes in order to maintain Schmid Elementary's green infrastructure.

Whether it’s a political cause or a social gathering, organizing people is tough. When it comes to organizing around urban flooding, this is especially true.

Stormwater doesn’t abide by municipal boundaries; we are all impacted. What one community does to manage its runoff will inevitably affect those nearby and further downstream. Basement back-ups disrupt people’s well-being, especially for residents who are already socially and economically vulnerable. Talking about these issues is more complex than it may seem.

But in 2014, a group of stakeholders in metro Chicago’s Calumet region—comprising the south side of Chicago and multiple municipalities in southern Cook County—started meeting to better coordinate on solutions. They came from different sectors, backgrounds, and organizations spanning governmental agencies to environmental nonprofits to stormwater engineers to academic institutions.

The Calumet Stormwater Collaborative has become known as an internationally-recognized model in resilience planning, a tangible example of people coming together to solve chronic urban flooding.

These days, the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative has become known as an internationally-recognized model in resilience planning, a tangible example of people coming together to solve chronic urban flooding. MPC has been both the facilitator and a member of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative since the get-go, and we are grateful for the support from generous funders including the Chicago Community Trust, the Joyce Foundation, the Grand Victoria Foundation, Prince Charitable Trusts and Crown Family Philanthropies who believe in the group’s mission.

Members of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative have recently worked together on a long-range, three-year shared vision. The group proudly released its “3-Year Work Plan” that captures top priorities.

Here’s a look at what’s on deck for the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative:

Goals to lead the way

If you’ve ever met a change-maker, a leader in getting things done, you know that having a clear goal in mind is paramount. The Calumet Stormwater Collaborative has four goals for the Calumet region:

  • Reducing basement backups. When you see four feet of stormwater in someone’s basement after a storm, that phenomenon is decidedly unnatural. The nearby river might naturally also overflow during a heavy rain, but a person’s basement flooding requires different solutions. In the stormwater management world, this is known as “urban flooding” or “non-overbank flooding” and addressing that is the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative's first fundamental goal: Significant reduction in non-overbank flooding.
  • Increasing maintenance of infrastructure. Storm sewers collect and convey rainwater that falls on roads and parking lots, while rain gardens are designed with vegetation to temporarily hold and soak in runoff from roofs, driveways or lawns. The former is a kind of “grey” infrastructure and the latter “green” infrastructure. Both need to be maintained to stay effective. For example, it’s important that municipalities sweep streets to ensure sewers are clear of leaves. Rain gardens need to be clear of weeds. Taking these kinds of proactive steps systemically across investments addresses the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative's next fundamental goal: Grey and green infrastructure maintains its designed performance over time.
  • Heightening coordination. Local governments have a lot on their plates in the pursuit of serving their constituents. Various factors play into a municipality’s ability to effectively manage stormwater, be it readily accessible funding streams or full-time staff or accurate information about the problems. Coordinating some of these responsibilities across municipal boundaries (following how the stormwater flows) can more efficiently manage stormwater and likely lower costs. Capacity and coordination are at the crux of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative's next fundamental goal: Increase municipal capacity and reduce fragmentation across Calumet government actors.
  • Using more and better data. Mapping a community’s sewer system, designing a rain garden to capture runoff from a nearby roof, helping residents discuss the trade-offs in deciding where to place what kind of green infrastructure: These are all activities to help plan for stormwater management that require different kinds of data. Working to compile and make readily-available data that is then used is the inspiration for the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative's final fundamental goal: Data-driven decision-making is more prevalent in stormwater management planning.

How much green infrastructure is out there anyways?

You’ve probably heard the saying “What gets measured gets managed.” If we knew more about the existing urban flooding problems, the investments previously made to solve them, and the ways in which local governments today need more help in managing stormwater, then the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative can better direct its future efforts and target solutions where they can have the most impact.

So, some of the cool things that the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative is setting out to create over the next three years are:

  • A baseline of the extent of the current urban flooding problem
  • A baseline of the existing green infrastructure investments
  • A baseline of municipal capacity to manage stormwater

We’ll be compiling as much data as we possibly can to tell a story about the urban flooding situation unique to the communities in the Calumet. We’ll figure out how to track down datasets recording the existing green infrastructure installations and what that data might tell us about maintenance needs or gaps where new investments could be made. We’ll be asking all kinds of questions so that we really understand where a local government could use additional support.

Led by members of the Data & Modeling, Planning & Policy, and the Municipal Outreach & Engagement Work Groups, these baselines will help to paint the picture of current conditions today. We will be better equipped to then measure how much our collective efforts are actually improving the situation based off this baseline understanding of the status quo.

Baselines today, test cases tomorrow

Over the next three years, the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative will also be hard at work testing out new approaches and different solutions with specific communities and key on-the-ground partners.

Based on what we learn from our baselines, you can expect us to explore specific solutions with communities where they make the most sense. Maybe it’s sharing the cost or technical equipment for cleaning out catch basins.

Perhaps next steps on the path to 2021 might look like helping some communities explore options to identify and secure dedicated funding for stormwater management. Or crafting a template that helps communities on the journey of completing a Stormwater Master Plan.

The future work will look different in each scenario, but grounded in the baseline understanding we come to document first.

Momentum in trainings and certifications

Amidst the research, documentation, and outreach to municipalities to inform baselines and strategize on future test cases, the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative is also driving robust trainings and certifications related to green infrastructure planning, installation and maintenance.

Up first is the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program training, an initiative developed by the Water Environment Federation to train and credential people for work installing and maintaining green infrastructure. Thanks to efforts by the Training & Maintenance Work Group, this training will be offered for the first time in the Chicago area in April 2019, bringing hands-on education, new professional certification opportunities, and valuable stormwater management best practices to our region. More such trainings will be sure to follow.

Amidst all this, you can also expect progress on discrete efforts being led by Member Agencies themselves who are driving current and future actions that align with the fundamental goals of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative. These include researching the Calumet region’s soils to inform green infrastructure planning and design, building more rain gardens, developing decision-making tools and establishing potential new mechanisms for financing stormwater management in the region.

The Calumet Stormwater Collaborative will be navigating this entire body of work over the course of the next three years, relying on an iterative process to evaluate how things are going and where to make tweaks along the way.

Taken together, this is the collective impact the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative and its members are setting out to be making on urban flooding in the Calumet region. Onward and upward!

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