The Race is On: Vying for Federal Funds Against Flooding

Chicago’s waterways are part of a massive infrastructure network originally built more than a century ago. As times have changed and the city has grown, various challenges have arisen—from invasive Asian carp heading up the waterways toward Lake Michigan to overwhelmed sewers releasing waste into the waterways and lake. But civic leaders are committed to fixing our city’s infrastructure, a series of inter-related challenges and also inter-related solutions. As described below, addressing sewer overflows and flooding are one piece of this puzzle.

Flooding is a serious problem across Chicago. Heavy rains mean water pooling on streets and alleys, and raw sewage bubbling into basements.

Even when flooding occurs a mile or more away from any rivers, it is closely linked to the larger challenges facing Chicago area waterways. The same factors that cause flooding are also causing serious pollution in the Chicago River and other waterways. In Chicago as in many cities, the same pipes carry both sewage and rainwater. When the pipes are overwhelmed during storms, a mix of raw sewage and stormwater is released directly into the Chicago waterways. These “combined sewer overflows,” or CSOs, happen hundreds of times each year.

Figure 1 Combined Sewer Overflow diagram Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities and Wayworks
Combined Sewer Overflow diagram Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities and Wayworks

Backed-up pipes also mean raw sewage and stormwater coming up through drains into people’s basements, damaging property and creating a health risk.

But there is hope. The same solutions that reduce flooding of streets and homes also protect the waterways from storm-related contamination. Green infrastructure that soaks up rainwater or snowmelt addresses both issues, as do other measures that keep excess water out of the sewers.

City, county and state officials are working together to develop creative programs that curb flooding and also have side benefits for residents particularly in low-income neighborhoods. And there could be millions of dollars available for such projects if they triumph in an ongoing competition for federal dollars aimed at making neighborhoods more resilient to storms.

In September 2008, Andrea and Marcos Muñoz had a college student staying in the basement of their home in the Little Village neighborhood on the southwest side, part of an urban immersion program. The student got a different immersion experience than she’d expected however – she woke up in the middle of the night to fetid water swirling around her bed, up to the mattress, as the Muñozes describe it.

That flood came from the biggest rainstorm ever recorded in Chicago. But such basement flooding is a common problem in Little Village and other parts of Chicago and the suburbs, as heavy rains overwhelm the region’s aging pipes, causing a mix of stormwater and raw sewage to back up into homes and pool on streets and alleys.

Flooding in Albany Park in 2008 Courtesy of The Salvation Army Chicago Metropolitan Division, www.salarmychicago.org
Flooding in Albany Park in 2008 Courtesy of The Salvation Army Chicago Metropolitan Division, www.salarmychicago.org
Flooding in Albany Park in 2013 Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
Flooding in Albany Park in 2013 Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org

Marcos Muñoz described how his family eventually eased their flooding problems by paying someone to cut into the pipe leading to their home and install a trap door that would let water flow only one direction. Other neighbors also resorted to this ad hoc solution, which cost about $1,000.

“But not everybody can do that – it’s not cheap,” said Muñoz. Neither is the aftermath of flooding. “Believe me, it stinks,” continued Muñoz. “If I have a bed or couch (in a flooded basement), all those things you have to throw away, you can’t use them no more. And we don’t make that much—that’s money out the window.”

Muñoz was speaking at a meeting hosted by the city of Chicago and local leaders in a church in Little Village in February, part of a multi-faceted effort to address flooding and the larger infrastructure issues that cause it.

The meeting was held as part of the city’s information-gathering and community input process for the competition run by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s National Disaster Resilience Competition. The competition is open to places that were declared disaster areas in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The grants totaling almost $1 billion come from unused disaster relief funds. They are meant to fund innovative resilience projects while also spurring resident action and policy changes to better prepare for the storms that are expected to become increasingly common with climate change.

Along with the city of Chicago, Cook County, adjacent DuPage County and the state of Illinois are also applying for funds under the program. While such government entities are not allowed to file a joint application in the competition, the idea is for them to work together to address the flooding and other infrastructure challenges that don’t see boundaries between cities or counties.

The four applications all made it through phase one of the competition, announced in June, based on conceptual plans. Now they are working on their applications for the final round of the competition, where they will submit detailed proposals due in October for green infrastructure and other stormwater-related improvements.

The four applications all made it through phase one of the competition, announced in June, based on conceptual plans. Now they are working on their applications for the final round of the competition, where they will submit detailed proposals due in October for green infrastructure and other stormwater-related improvements.

Cook County’s application notes that since 1972, 13 floods designated as disasters have caused $628.5 million in property damage in the area. Flooding comes from rivers and creeks overflowing their banks, rainwater pooling on low-lying land, and sewer pipes flooding basements.

“Located between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds, the region is the steward of 84 percent of the country’s freshwater,” notes the county’s application, referring to Northeast Illinois as a whole. “It is uniquely poised to bridge the divide across watersheds and lead a new water culture…. While the region does not have well-known mega-storms, even small storms are a significant risk and result in flooding and polluted runoff draining into Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.”

Heavy rainstorms in 2013 resulted in the re-reversal of the Chicago River, sending sewage and polluted runoff into Lake Michigan Photo Courtesy of Lloyd DeGrane, 2013
Heavy rainstorms in 2013 resulted in the re-reversal of the Chicago River, sending sewage and polluted runoff into Lake Michigan Photo Courtesy of Lloyd DeGrane, 2013

Preventing flooding in neighborhoods across the Chicago region also improves the water quality in the Chicago River and other Chicago waterways. And since Chicago waterways lead to the Illinois River and then the Mississippi River, the ripple effects stretch far. “Green” and “gray” infrastructure projects are among the ways flooding can be addressed. Gray infrastructure includes upgrading and overhauling sewer pipes. Green infrastructure, like permeable pavement, bio-swales and planted roofs, soaks up stormwater so that it doesn’t go into sewers or pool on the ground.

“It’s not feasible to dig up every stormwater pipe in Cook and DuPage and replace them with pipes that are twice as big,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advised the government agencies on their HUD proposals. “We have to get more creative about how we are going to manage these increasingly frequent heavy rainfalls. Things that actually absorb rainwater rather than just shoving it into the nearest storm drain.”

Conservation Design Forum Project: Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, IL The landscape surrounding this Chicagoland hospital is beautiful and functional, containing rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavements. Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
Conservation Design Forum Project: Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, IL . The landscape surrounding this Chicagoland hospital is beautiful and functional, containing rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavements. Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
Conservation Design Forum Project: Fountain View Recreation Center, Carol Stream, IL The Chicago suburb's flagship recreation center includes permeable pavers, bioswales, rain gardens, and native vegetation. Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
Conservation Design Forum Project: Fountain View Recreation Center, Carol Stream, IL. The Chicago suburb’s flagship recreation center includes permeable pavers, bioswales, rain gardens, and native vegetation. Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
One neighborhood of Hinsdale, IL, contains curb cuts that allow stormwater to easily drain into rain gardens and bioswales. With dense vegetation, absorbent soils, and underground storage capacity, these installations help treat the stormwater and prevent flooding of homes and streets . Photo courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
One neighborhood of Hinsdale, IL, contains curb cuts that allow stormwater to easily drain into rain gardens and bioswales. With dense vegetation, absorbent soils, and underground storage capacity, these installations help treat the stormwater and prevent flooding of homes and streets . Photo courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org

“There won’t be enough money to redo all the stormwater infrastructure,” added Josh Ellis, sustainability initiative director for the Metropolitan Planning Council, which is also advising governments on their applications. “This will test out some new means of managing stormwater at a level bigger than one alley at a time. There’s also a commitment by partner agencies to pursuing an array of policy changes. Everything from updating the Illinois plumbing code to allow reuse of rain water, to looking at transportation funding programs, and figure out why some require stormwater management and some don’t.”

The HUD funding is meant specifically to bolster the defenses of low-income communities, which are more vulnerable to the social and health consequences of flooding, as Muñoz noted. In preparing their applications, city and county staffers held meetings in immigrant neighborhoods like Little Village and also low-income neighborhoods and suburbs with majority African American populations, including the suburb of Robbins south of Chicago.

“Where the village of Robbins is, that’s where everything flows to the bottom, it’s called ‘the bottoms,’” said Sylvia Parham, grants manager for the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development and a resident of Robbins.

Robbins is in a low-lying area with several waterways running through it. During heavy rains these waterways are likely to overflow their banks, and all that water pools in parts of the village. The fire department has had to rescue residents by boat during past floods, Parham notes. A problem area is where Midlothian Creek makes a sharp turn and meets the Cal-Sag Channel. At this “elbow” fast-flowing water often overflows the banks. Local officials have debated widening the creek at that point or straightening it out to avoid the problem – a project estimated to cost $850,000. And more money could also be spent on regularly cleaning out and maintaining the creek. But it’s not clear which strategy is most promising and cost-effective.

“Would it be worth the money to widen that turn and have more maintenance cleaning it – or would it make more sense to redirect it?” asked Parham. These questions were debated at the county meeting in Robbins related to the HUD grant.

Dominic Tocci, deputy director of community development for the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, noted that the competition is meant to bolster the capacity of individual residents to respond to flooding and other related problems, and also to develop more economic resiliency for whole communities.

“There’s been economic disinvestment in a number of places in the county, in the southern suburbs, where the tax base has eroded,” he said. “There’s a lack of human capital and actual dollars to keep up with regular maintenance.”

The concept of “resiliency” involves not just building more sewer pipes or straightening a creek to avoid flooding, but taking a big-picture look to find solutions that also make life better for residents in other ways.

At the meeting in Little Village, city staffers described to residents how green infrastructure and other measures to address flooding might play out locally. In some low-income Chicago neighborhoods, there are many vacant lots and defunct businesses or industries, leaving unused plots of cracked asphalt or pavement. Such sites are perfect for urban gardens or other green space that soaks up stormwater and also becomes an asset to the community.

The city officials invited residents to pore over several highly detailed oversized maps of neighborhood streets. The residents pointed out where flooding is worst, and proposed changes they would like to see.

The Village of Midlothian, a southwest suburb of Chicago, has long suffered from urban flooding and, like Little Village, has been through a community planning process. The Village has worked closely with Center for Neighborhood Technology, through its RainReady program, and other agency partners to assess the cause and characteristics of its flooding issues. Here, a resident examines a set of flooding photos taken by members of the community Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
The Village of Midlothian, a southwest suburb of Chicago, has long suffered from urban flooding and, like Little Village, has been through a community planning process. The Village has worked closely with Center for Neighborhood Technology, through its RainReady program, and other agency partners to assess the cause and characteristics of its flooding issues. Here, a resident examines a set of flooding photos taken by members of the community Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
A Midlothian resident uses a map of the community to outline persistent flooding Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org
A Midlothian resident uses a map of the community to outline persistent flooding Photo Courtesy of Center for Neighborhood Technology, www.cnt.org

Originally from Mexico, Elena Duran moved to Little Village 42 years ago. She described how flooding on the sidewalk around Piotrowski Park has been an issue for years, as trash backs up on the storm drains. The problem is a common topic of conversation among the pushcart vendors there who sell tamales, popsicles and elotes – corn on the cob slathered in mayonnaise. Duran also described a small park that has “been a no-man’s land for a long time” due in part to flooding. And then there are the basements.

“If you really walk around the neighborhood you will see homeowners have been working on our houses throughout the years – we take pride in the neighborhood,” she told the visitors. “But flooding is an issue. If you have a basement you say ‘Hay Diosito, Hay Diosito’” – praying to a higher power during rain storms.

Figure 3 Flooding in Little Village in 2015 . Photo Courtesy of Ariel Uribe, Chicago Tribune
Flooding in Little Village in 2015 . Photo Courtesy of Ariel Uribe, Chicago Tribune

Moore said experts are impressed by the collaborative nature and the scale of the Chicago, Cook County, DuPage and Illinois applications in the HUD competition.

“We’re talking about unprecedented levels of green infrastructure, we’ve never entertained anything on this scale before,” he said. “It’s a big endeavor. It will be pretty exciting.”

Posted August 6, 2015