As Emanuel announces new flood control project, some say plans need to adapt for climate change

April 23, 2013

(WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)
A green roof goes in on top of the Jardine Water Purification Plant on Chicago’s Navy Pier. Water management officials suggest green roofs are among the best development practices that can help limit flooding.

As neighborhoods from Albany Park to South Shore work to wring out water-damaged possessions and clear up flood debris, Chicago area water managers say they’re doing what they can to control flooding. But some also say climate change could make the task more difficult in the future.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans Sunday to construct a huge new tunnel at a cost of $45 to $55 million to help reduce flooding in the Albany Park area, which also experienced a serious flood in 2008. Speaking on the issue Monday, the mayor also noted that Albany Park has “been affected by once-in-a-century flooding that happened twice in five years.”

Donald Wuebbles, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, has also noticed unusually frequent extremes in Chicago’s weather.

“The projections are that we will see even more precipitation coming as larger events in the future,” Wuebbles said. He’s been writing and speaking for years about the effects of climate change on weather, and for years has been warning Chicagoans about more frequent catastrophic storms to come due to warming atmospheric temperatures.

David St. Pierre, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District says as far as he’s concerned, that reality is already here.

“We’re seeing a lot more severe events than we saw ten years ago, five years ago,” St. Pierre said.

He said tunnels like the one proposed by the city and the MWRD’s Deep Tunnel project can address stormwater issues to a limited extent, but even the biggest tunnel will not be able to handle the new normal. St. Pierre thinks the region also needs to look at solutions that keep water completely out of an overwhelmed sewer system.

Take, for instance, green infrastructure proposals that have been around for a while. In 2003, then-Mayor Richard Daley’s office released a document on best stormwater management practices including green roofs and permeable pavement. But the issue is a regional one, and ideas that would make green infrastructure a requirement have been slower to take shape.

The City of Chicago’s stormwater ordinance passed in 2007 regulates runoff from new developments and redevelopment projects above a certain size, suggesting on-site retention systems and permeable pavement among the management options. But its scope has been limited so far. And the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District drafted a Watershed Management Ordinance in 2009 that includes requirements for wetland protection and maintenance of permeable surfaces in new developments; it could come up for a vote this year. Meantime, the Chicago Department of Transportation is working on a draft of its own “Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Guidelines” that would mandate careful control of runoff in all new city infrastructure. Eventually, these ideas would form a patchwork of regulations to prevent flooding.

But none of these options retroactively require homes or businesses to control runoff into the city’s sewers, a limitation that could become increasingly significant with each new season of huge storms. In the meantime, city officials are asking residents who want to join neighborhood-wide mitigation programs to look into its Basement Flooding Partnership.

Correction: The audio version of this story incorrectly referred to Donald Wuebbles as John Wuebbles.