Chicago's Investment in Cleaner, Greener Water


Climate change is bringing major changes to our cities right now. Those impacts have been readily visible in Chicago where low levels in Lake Michigan and massive, violent rain storms have twice been complicit in the reversal (or re-reversal) of the Chicago River this year.

Think about it! Twice this year, the waterway coursing through one of the world’s most recognizable skylines ran backwards. It is not the first time this has happened. It certainly won’t be the last—in fact; we can expect it to happen more frequently as we struggle to deal the impacts of climate change on the aging, and often failing, water infrastructure on which this town is built.

Which leads me to a heartening announcement out of Chicago’s City Hall today. Mayor Emanuel announced a dedicated fund of $50 million to be spent over the next five years on green infrastructure—the use of natural or permeable surfaces to capture, collect, hold and filter stormwater, instead of dumping it into the overstressed sewer system. I have not seen the specifics of the new plan yet, but we are BIG believers in green infrastructure at NRDC as a valuable tool to quickly address some of the climate impacts we are already seeing—and doing so in an extremely cost-effective manner.

Currently, Chicago’s overburdened sewer combined sewer system runs into problems with as little as 2/3 of an inch of rain. Those increasingly common storms trigger combined sewer overflows where stormwater and sewage are dumped into the Chicago River and people’s basements. With big storms, the river ends up sending that nasty water out into Lake Michigan. The status quo is already untenable and will worsen in coming years.

The City is quick to note that this is one of the largest voluntary investments in green infrastructure in any American city.  That may or may not be completely accurate, but we are hopeful that, once we sort through the fine print, it will be a whole lot stronger than the anemic offering that the regional water regulators, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), has floated as part of its consent decree settlement with EPA over combined sewer overflows (the practice of dumping raw sewage into the Chicago River when the system can’t handle flow volumes during a rainstorm). We are in court now to enforce the law to compel MWRD to do better on green infrastructure and the rest of the inadequate settlement. And we will continue to push in that direction to help combat the flooding in people’s homes and pollution of this region’s waterways.

Work on this new initiative is supposed to start later this fall. And beyond the capital work, City Hall will also plan for the future with a series of studies that analyze the impacts of climate change on the frequency of rainfall and the costs and benefits for a larger-scale implementation of green infrastructure, both of which will inform the development of a comprehensive citywide stormwater management plan.  That plan will be critical to ensure that the green infrastructure investment is strategically placed in neighborhoods with basement flooding and CSO problems.

The Mayor’s announcement is an important step; one that we hope will result in an even greater investment in green infrastructure, on par with cities like Milwaukee, whose regional green infrastructure plan has a goal of capturing 740 million gallons of stormwater per rain event by 2035.  Kevin Shafer, the executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and his team have been using green infrastructure to better manage stormwater for years…and also without a regulatory push.  Philadelphia has completed the first two years of its 25-year Green City, Clean Waters program, which relies primarily on green infrastructure to reduce CSOs.  And, while Philadelphia is making its $1.67 billion green infrastructure investment as part of its 2011 administrative consent order with the state of Pennsylvania (and a new, parallel administrative consent order with the EPA), it’s important to note that the regulators required the City to address its CSOs, but it was Philadelphia that pushed the green infrastructure solution to those problems. On the west coast, Seattle’s Mayor McGinn announced plans earlier this year to create a regional green infrastructure plan that captures 700 million gallons of rainwater per year.

For Chicago to compete, we must have infrastructure that offsets the economic and quality of life impacts that climate change is already throwing at us. Green infrastructure is an important tool to get ahead of the problem—offsetting pollution and flooding in economically efficient fashion, while also bringing amenities into neighborhoods. Kudos to the Mayor for this important step. We look forward to even more.


Image of Chicago River water flowing into Lake Michigan by Lloyd Degrane, used with permission.