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Army Corps of Engineers

Water being pumped into the Des Plaines River

Green infrastructure could give Chicago’s sewer system a break

by Julie Davis
Apr 18, 2013

Sinkholes, geysers spewing out of manholes, impassable highways and city streets; the heavy rains over the past week have taken their toll on Chicago’s infrastructure.

An intricate system of major engineering projects executed by the Metropolitan
Water Reclamation District and the Army Corps of Engineers including tunnels,
reservoirs, locks and levies keep Chicago dry day-in day-out.

But with major rains such as the region has received over the past week, that
traditional infrastructure is not enough.

Experts like Ryan Wilson at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Wicker
Park say green infrastructure can relieve the pressure on the water-management
systems. While major rainfall will probably still overtax management systems, “we
believe using a mix of solutions is the approach that can solve smaller flooding 

Wilson recommends a mix of solutions all aimed at reducing the amount of water
going into the sewer system. He explained: Permeable pavement can help maximize
the ground area absorbing falling rainwater. Rain gardens and natural landscaping
can collect water and facilitate absorption. Systems like rain barrels and cisterns
collect falling rainwater and allow residents to put it to use.

The technology center connects property owners with resources for implementing
projects like these, or what they call “wetrofit” services.

Hal Sprague is a policy expert working with the center. He said that sometimes
property owners don’t like the look of these landscaping techniques. “We all have to
change our mindset and culture with what we’re used to and comfortable with.”

Finding solutions is important because flooding is expensive. Sprague said “over a 5
year period, 5 to 600 million dollars was spent on claims for flooding in basements
and backyards.” That is money that could be going to infrastructure, he said.

However, David J. Yocca, a principal landscape architect and planner at the
Conservation Design Forum said green infrastructure planning on a larger scale is
also important. Green infrastructure is “not just something you can do one off and
reduce neighborhood flooding,” he said.

Yocca and the team at Conservation Design Form designed Chicago’s City Hall green-
roof pilot program. Yocca said projects such as green roofs are a good investment
because they extend the life of a roof and conserve energy as well as reduce water
 run off.

Chicago’s green-building permit system encourages developers to introduce green
building projects by reducing permit fees and speeding up the permit process.

Chicago’s green ally program is an example of the Department of Transportation’s
using green building techniques. Over 100 alleys have been build using permeable
pavement and recycled materials. The Department of Transportation is working
on a set of sustainable urban infrastructure policies and guidelines, due to be
formalized over the summer, that will lay out methods institute green infrastructure
in city street construction.

For now, stories of the flooding are valuable. CNT is asking residents to share the
flooding stories on their website. Wilson said, “by better understanding what the
problem is and the nuance we’ll be better able to plan for the future. The story is
 raw data.”