Plans in the Chicago region to help mitigate future flooding

With the flooding that took place in the Chicago region in recent days, it is reasonable to ask what is being done to limit flooding in the future. Here is one answer from a regional expert:

Asked if costly and disruptive transportation chaos is inevitable, Josh Ellis, a stormwater expert with the Metropolitan Planning Council, offered some rays of hope.

“We can definitely do better. I’m not sure we’re willing to invest the amount of money needed to have an infrastructure that truly withstands a 100-year storm. When we built most of our infrastructure it was for a five- to 20-year storm standard.”

What’s slightly depressing is that current Metropolitan Water Reclamation District infrastructure and projects under way, including tunnels and reservoirs, will provide about 17 billion gallons of storage, Ellis calculates. Compare that to the 70 billion gallons or so that roiled Cook County alone in storms Wednesday and Thursday.

“Even when the Deep Tunnel is complete, the numbers don’t add up in our favor,” Ellis said. “We can do better, but I’m not sure we can ever solve this and have zero problems.”

So what can we do?

As individuals, it can come down to reducing the impermeable pavement on your property or cultivating a rain garden that holds stormwater temporarily.

On a wider level, it’s going to take expanding municipal stormwater systems, creating stream-side ponds to store rainfall and investing in green infrastructure, Ellis thinks.

“It’s about finding other places to put the water other than in big pipes … that’s what green infrastructure is,” he said. “It’s about finding ways for natural vegetation to prevent water from entering the storm system.”

Likely candidates for ad hoc stormwater storage include public entities with a lot of land — from schools with athletic fields to park districts.

The causes and consequences of flooding like this can be traced to human development. Critics of sprawl have noted for decades that flooding is one pernicious side effect: cover land with houses and asphalt and there is less place for water to go. Cover up natural wetlands and build close to waterways and this is going to happen every so often. Think of the concept of a retention pond; it is an admission that we have altered the natural landscape in such a way that we need to create a space for excess water to go.

I know some critics of sprawl would say the answer is to have less sprawl. Since this cat is out of the bag in many places in the United States, Ellis’ answers above are interesting: a combination of large-scale, regional projects would help as would more individual and municipal actions. Large projects like Deep Tunnel are impressive but they aren’t silver bullets. I’ve noticed more nearby communities have moved toward combining park land and floodplains. Thus, if flooding occurs, not many buildings are hurt and fewer people need to be evacuated.

This could also lead to broader questions: who is responsible for the flooding and its effects? Should individual homeowners bear the burden of protecting themselves and cleaning up? Should local communities? How about regional entities – how much power should they have to tackle such issues? This sort of problem requires coordination across many governmental bodies, calling for metropolitan approaches. It still strikes me as strange in the United States that individual homeowners may not know much at all about the flooding or water problems their property might have.

For a longer look at flooding and water issues in suburban sprawl, I highly recommend Adam Rome’s 2001 book The Bulldozer in the Countryside.

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