Melba Lara: You're listening to WBEZ, and it's time for our weekly climate conversation. Chicago's Metropolitan Water Reclamation district is responsible for stormwater and wastewater management throughout Cook County. One of its largest projects has been the so called "deep tunnel," an expansive underground system built to store billions of gallons of water when we get heavy rain. But as extreme precipitation driven by climate change becomes more common, like the supercell rainstorm that hit Chicago in September, officials are thinking about how these systems might need to adapt. Kevin Fitzpatrick is assistant director of engineering at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation district. Kevin, thanks for joining us.
Kevin Fitzpatrick: Oh, you're welcome, Melba. My pleasure.
Melba Lara: So I mentioned the deep tunnel project. But can you give us a brief description of the system Chicago currently has in place to manage stormwater?
Kevin Fitzpatrick: Yes, the tunnel system, as you noted, that's actually 110 miles of deep tunnels that leads to enormous reservoirs. And it's designed to capture and contain rainwater mixed with the sewage, we call it combined sewage. And in addition to that, most people know the waterways, manmade waterways, were constructed here in the Chicago area to reverse the Chicago and Calumet rivers. One of the lesser known functions they serve is to also store stormwater during a storm. We'll, in advance of the storm, we'll lower it down as much as we possibly can and maintain navigation. And then as the storm hits, it begins to fill up, and we are able to contain millions of gallons of water that way, as well.
Melba Lara: And when you look at climate change, and how the, you know, storms and rainfall events are happening around Chicago in your opinion, how is climate change affecting these things?
Kevin Fitzpatrick: Well, we've certainly seen an increase in the amount of rain. But more importantly, it's the number of very intense storms that we're seeing that's increased. In September, there was a storm measured on the northwest side of Chicago, where they got a half an inch of rain in five minutes. It's like a monsoon. So we're seeing stuff like that. And infrastructure just isn't able to keep up with it.
Melba Lara: And talk to us about what strategies then, the district is implementing to kind of manage these storms that are just getting increasingly more intense.
Kevin Fitzpatrick: One of the big things we're pushing right now is green infrastructure projects. And we have completed about 80 of these and another 20 that are under construction. And the idea behind the green infrastructure is to try and keep the water where it falls. So absorb it in rain gardens, capture it, maybe in rain barrels, use permeable pavers and try and soak it into the ground, keep it out of the sewer system, or at least slow it down from getting to the sewers, because that infrastructure is taxed enough already. And anything we can keep out of it will certainly help out.
Melba Lara: Can you tell us a bit more about how green infrastructure helps manage flood water? I know you mentioned, you know, keeping water out of the sewers. What are some other ways that green infrastructure helps?
Kevin Fitzpatrick: Sure. They generally try and mimic nature. Before this whole great metropolis we live in was developed, it was mostly a swampy area. But now everything's paved over. So there's really nowhere for water to seep into the ground like it used to. So what we're doing is trying to put in more native plants that have deep root systems that can help get that water into the ground.
Melba Lara: And looking forward, what would you say is the support that the district will need on both the state and federal level to make sure that Chicago is adapting in the way it needs to?
Kevin Fitzpatrick: Yeah, we've been fortunate to get a lot of support in the past for the deep tunnel system, but now it's a brand new challenge and funding is very, very competitive from federal and state levels. Fortunately, we have very good relationships and we continue to pursue these sources of funding. We're not much different from several other areas around the country, where it's just become very unaffordable, really to put in place the infrastructure that you need. So we really need some of the federal dollars back to help us out.
Melba Lara: Kevin Fitzpatrick is assistant director of engineering at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation district. And if you have a question for our weekly climate segment, you can email us at email@example.com. This is WBEZ.
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