Adopt the MWRD Watershed Management Ordinance, then Improve It
By Josh Ellis
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) has grown from its historical wastewater treatment role into a leader for progressive stormwater management. MWRD has built flood control structures, like the famous Deep Tunnel project, since the 1960s. In 2004, the Illinois State Legislature expandedMWRD’s authority to manage stormwater – and required a new approach to the management process. The legislation established seven watershed planning councils, with representatives from every municipality. The councils’ role is to advise MWRD on stormwater management, including a new Cook County Stormwater Management Plan.
In 2007, after the stormwater management plan was adopted, MWRD began drafting the Cook County Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO). The WMO will replace the forty-year-old Sewer Permit Ordinance. The old sewer ordinance included stormwater detention (keeping rain and snowmelt onsite, instead of draining into a sewer), but the new WMO is based on current best management practices. In the latest draft of the WMO, MWRD allows the use of green infrastructure to meet the stormwater management requirements, using natural processes like wetlands and rain gardens.
MPC supports the adoption of the Cook County Watershed Management Ordinance. The proposed ordinance is a balanced and inclusive approach to stormwater management. It recognizes the need to support real estate investment with flexible, performance-based stormwater requirements. Perhaps most importantly, this ordinance is being created through a lengthy consensus-building process that involves stakeholders from the local government, real estate, engineering and environmental communities. This interjurisdictional approach is a model for any agency that manages large geographies and shared natural resources.
The new WMO provides comprehensive county-wide regulations to prevent flooding and protect water quality, and provides a great deal of flexibility in how that happens. In addition to the recognition of green infrastructure practices’ role in managing stormwater, the WMO allows real estate developers to explore offsite management of some stormwater if it will clearly impair their ability to develop. That creates some interesting opportunities for reusing vacant or marginal land for stormwater management, something MPC is exploring through the Cook County Land Bank and in its work with the City of Blue Island. Developments must also prevent soil erosion and sediment, which clog sewers and waterways. The ordinance regulates isolated wetlands (not wetlands that are regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), floodplains, and other sensitive resources. Municipalities can apply to administer the WMO permitting process for its community, in order to speed up the development process. MWRD has published a short summary of the proposed ordinance.
MWRD’s process for developing the WMO required cross-border public participation and stakeholder engagement. MWRD convened an Advisory Committee to assist with writing and evaluating the ordinance. The Advisory Committee included representatives from municipalities, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, and MPC’s Josh Ellis has been participating since 2009. Meeting on a regular basis with this range of stakeholders was an enlightening process, and MPC hopes it continues.
MWRD was responsive to public input on the draft WMO. At the request of stakeholders, MWRD prepared an engineering analysis and real estate economic impact study of the first draft of the ordinance – the results did suggest that the extra stormwater management requirements would increase the cost of development, but that’s the cost of not exacerbating current stormwater problems. The draft ordinance and studies were published for public review in 2009. Based on the public comments, study results, and feedback from the Advisory Committee, the WMO was revised and issued for a second round of public review in June 2013.
MPC recommends that MWRD continue to continually revisit, refine and amend the WMO, with the input of the Advisory Committee. More could be done to ease the cost burden of increased stormwater management on infill redevelopment sites, and it behoove everyone involved to explore using rainfall data from this century. The WMO isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a significant step forward; it’s worth noting that fourteen years have passed since the Cook County sewer ordinance was last amended. By contrast, the Lake County Watershed Development Ordinance is amended every one to five years. In order to respond to changing patterns in rainfall and real estate, the Cook County Watershed Management Ordinance should be re-examined and updated regularly. By involving the Advisory Committee and other stakeholders, MWRD can continue to build the consensus and capacity needed for widespread, effective implementation of this progressive ordinance. So let’s pass it today, then start making it better tomorrow.
Photo Credit: Watershed Maintenance/shutterstock
Since 1934, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has been dedicated to shaping a more sustainable and prosperous greater Chicago region. As an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, MPC serves communities and residents by developing, promoting and implementing solutions for sound regional growth.
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