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The Chicago region and flooding: We sink or swim together
Every town and suburb had better team up to prevent flooded basements, washed out roads and overflowing rivers.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial Board

The third straight wettest May on record is sending us a message: Every town and suburb in the Chicago region had better do a better job of teaming up to prevent flooding.

Once again, rivers and canals are overflowing, basements are flooding, backyards are turning into lakes, power has gone out and roads are under water. More water — much of it polluted — is flowing into Lake Michigan, raising the lake’s level and putting Illinois’ shoreline at further risk from damaging storms.

The entire Chicago region is paying a high price today for decades of allowing new development to cover the landscape, ignoring the will of nature, galloping ahead of thoughtful solutions about where rainwater should go.

The region continues to suffer from a patchwork approach to flood control. It’s an uncoordinated mess. A smart approach to flood control by one agency or town is undermined by a poor approach — or no approach — by another agency or town.

There is a better way, one that emphasizes green technology and true regional cooperation.

A failure to enforce rules

After years of negotiations, the city of Chicago and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District finally have implemented watershed management ordinances to keep new development from making flooding worse. Developers, according to the new standards, no longer can build or pave over land without taking stormwater runoff into account.

So if you want to put a parking lot on an empty field, let’s say, you’d better include a plan for where the rain will go without further burdening sewer systems.

On the face of it, that’s a big step forward. But environmentalists say the ordinances are not enforced aggressively enough.

And local municipalities still are free to undermine the ordinances by issuing permits for building designs that send more water into overburdened sewers.

Towns just hurting each other

When local communities, oblivious to the larger picture, allow bigger homes and other structures but don’t find more landscape to absorb the additional stormwater runoff, they create bigger headaches for every town downstream.

Water doesn’t pay attention to where one jurisdiction stops and another starts. It doesn’t know that there are separate stormwater agencies for Cook and the collar counties. It doesn’t know there are 133 separate municipalities in Cook County.

Floodwater laps around the base of the architecturally renowned Farnsworth House near the Fox River in south suburban Plano.
Provided photo

Environmentalists say the only truly effective solution involves a much more ambitious and coordinated effort to install “green” engineering. That means finding ways to reuse rainwater or let it soak into the ground through porous pavement, swales, rain gardens, tree trenches, planters and other measures.

But for green engineering, every town and stormwater control agency has to get on board. The Chicago region’s patchwork approach has never really worked, but it’s especially inadequate in an era of extreme weather brought on by climate change.

The storms of the last few weeks could well be a new normal. Chicago’s rainfall on May 14 set a record for the date, and that one-day deluge was followed by a succession of additional heavy storms.

The traditional public works approach to handling all that rain — expensive networks of sewers, tunnels and reservoirs — can’t be built fast enough to keep us dry.

Even the completion of the Deep Tunnel project’s McCook reservoir in 2029 won’t solve the problem of flooding in that corner of the county, in part because stormwater sewers just aren’t big enough to transport water to the reservoir quickly enough.

“Our region’s planning is not keeping pace with the changing reality of the climate,” MWRD Commissioner Cameron Davis told us on Tuesday. “Climate change is upon us, and we can’t engineer the region fast enough to offset that.”

We should be thinking more about sponges — ways to allow water to soak into the ground — rather than letting it run off into the nearest sewer line or waterway.

New regional group

To take regional planning to the next level, a group of organizations — including the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Friends of the Chicago River, the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission, the MWRD and others — is creating a Chicago River Watershed Council to design ways to expand green infrastructure across the watershed and to expand and restore natural areas.

Those involved in the effort already have identified thousands of parcels throughout the regional watershed that can be used for recreational open space, natural habitat and stormwater retention.

It’s a terrific step forward if it leads to regionally coordinated and effective results.

In the meantime, more rain is forecast for the weekend.



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