flooding bills

By Josh Ellis

As I write this it is raining, snow (and lots of it) is melting, combined sewers are overflowing and, unfortunately, in a lot of places throughout the Chicago region I'm sure river levels are rising and many basements are starting to fill with a cold, nasty mix of stormwater and sewage. For everyone who will suffer property damage over the next few days, my heart goes out to you, and know that it's what motivates us at the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) to work as hard as we do on stormwater mitigation.

Every storm is different—different amounts and rates of precipitation, different direction of storm movement, different conditions on the ground and in sewers based on when it last rained, etc. Today's rain itself isn't that severe, but the ground is frozen pretty solid due to our brutal winter, which means the water can't soak into the ground. (This is also one limitation of green infrastructure practices like rain gardens and bioswales, and underscores the fact that we need a wide variety of stormwater solutions.) Lots of street drains are still covered in snow, which could exacerbate ponding on streets. And all that snow is really just frozen water (depending on how dense it is, 3 inches of snow can equal about an inch of rain), so any runoff that makes it to the sewer will not be alone. That runoff will fill local sewers first—these are maintained by municipal governments—and those draining to regional systems like the complex pipe networks managed by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District or Lake County. If those fill up, the system overflows to rivers in the area.

As complex as it is, it is also very simple. If we have more rain than we have the capacity to handle, we're in trouble. And while in the short-term the best we can do is try to ride out these storms, there are some actions we can take to affect long-term change.

Specifically, we can support a couple pieces of legislation currently proposed in the Illinois General Assembly:

  • Illinois Senate Bill 2780, sponsored by Sen. Dan  Kotowski (D-Park Ridge), and Illinois House Bill 4382, sponsored by Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Buffalo Grove), would give the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency greater power to more readily fund stormwater management infrastructure projects (from pipes to rain gardens, the full gamut) through the State Revolving Funds, which have historically been used mostly for drinking water and wastewater projects. This is a good thing. By making low-interest loans available for a wide range of projects to help manage stormwater, over time we'll see more and more investment in both green and gray infrastructure.
  • And as explored previously on MPC's site, Illinois House Bill 1551, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago) and Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), would give the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago more explicit ability to use its financial resources and staff expertise to support municipal stormwater management projects, assist private property owners struggling with basement backups or other chronic stormwater problems, and, generally speaking, tackle a wider variety of stormwater-related problems than it historically has. This is also a good thing.  

MPC supports these pieces of legislation as pathways to establishing more funding options to foster investment in stormwater mitigation, from backyards to municipal sewer systems. Adopting these bills won't solve today's stormwater problems, but can go a long way to supporting tomorrow's stormwater solutions.

Photo Credit: Flood Risk and Legislation/shutterstock