Illinois Infrastructure: Getting Our Water Systems Up to Snuff Amidst the Climate Crush

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Water. In Illinois we have whipsawed back and forth between having too much of it and not enough in recent years. From a flooded and re-reversed Chicago River to the mighty Mississippi being reduced to levels so low it was unnavigable to the barges that carry grain and other bulk commodities, with a historic drought withering corn and soybean in between, the impact of climate change has been impossible to ignore.

Those messes have not been lost on leadership in the Statehouse. Quietly and without much fanfare, Illinois has been laying the groundwork for making the state’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems more resilient, more sustainable, and better prepared for the impacts of climate change. On the heels of this week’s federal climate assessment, there is some serious leadership coming out of Springfield on the issue right now:

  • Governor Pat Quinn announced in his State of the State address that he will secure an additional $1 billion as part of his Clean Water Initiative to support upgrading water systems across the state.
  • The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will undertake a major study of how much drinking water is lost from leaky old pipes, losing millions of gallons of treated drinking water and costing water utilities and their customers millions of dollars each year.
  • And just this week the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that, for the first time ever, makes green infrastructure, water efficiency, and other climate resiliency projects eligible to tap a multi-billion dollar state fund for water infrastructure investments. 

These kinds of projects had previously been supported with relatively small grants.  But now, thanks to the legislation passed this week, Illinois is going big by allowing these projects to access a dedicated multi-billion dollar revolving loan fund that the state established decades ago. The bill now goes to Governor Quinn for his signature. Given that the Quinn administration championed the legislation, it’s a certainty that it will become law.

The fund has issued more than $3 billion in low-interest loans since it was established in 1988. Last year, Governor Quinn added $1 billion to this fund through his Clean Water Initiative and he plans to put another $1 billion into the pot this year. 

With so much new funding available, it’s the right time for the state legislature and Governor Quinn to make green infrastructure and water efficiency projects eligible for funding through the Clean Water Initiative. Illinois’ cities and towns are dealing with an increasingly complex set of problems that will tax water infrastructure not designed to address the extremes wrought by climate change:  more frequent floods, more violent rainfall events that overwhelm storm sewers and longer periods of drought that will strain water supplies.

As outlined this week in the federal climate assessment report, climate change is no longer something that looms in the future. It is here. Plaguing Illinois now. And there are some important fixes needed now as scientists expect things to worsen:

  • More flooding on the way: In Illinois, 179 drinking water and sewage treatment plants are already located in flood prone areas. A recent analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency of climate change and the risk of flooding shows that Illinois counties can expect between a 40% and 90% increase in the size of areas susceptible to flooding by the end of the century.
  • More violent rainstorms will overwhelm aging stormwater systems: Statewide, the annual number of precipitation events greater than 3 inches has increased by 83 percent over the last 50 years, and the amount of total precipitation during these events has increased by 100 percent.  As the climate continues to warm, the number of days with rainfall greater than 1 inch is projected to increase up to 30 percent by mid-century, overwhelming stormwater systems and leading to more instances of localized flooding.
  • Hotter temperatures bring drought: While annual average precipitation is projected to increase slightly (2 to 8 percent) by mid-century, average precipitation during the summer is projected to decrease by up to 10 percent.  This would coincide with projected summer temperature increases of 5 to 6°F. Hotter temperatures combined with decreased precipitation could contribute to drier soils and more droughts. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the extreme heat seen in the 2012 drought is now four times more likely to happen than in the past because of climate change.

It’s critically important that we take these kinds of future impacts into account when we’re designing and building drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, since they have lifetimes measured in decades. Failing to factor in the impacts of climate change and the risk of future floods, storms and droughts could prove to be a costly mistake.

Making low-interest loans, loan guarantees, and other forms of financing available is essential to making green infrastructure and water efficiency part of communities’ water future. When funding is made available, it removes the biggest barrier to deploying these techniques and allows communities to scale up their efforts accordingly. 

NRDC has given the President’s Climate Preparedness and Resiliency Task Force a set of detailed recommendations on how to use revolving loan funds to make water infrastructure funds ready for climate change. Governor Quinn is a member of that Task Force. 

Other states should follow Illinois’ lead and the example that Governor Quinn has begun to establish. Across the nation, states have about $110 billion in capital available through similar water infrastructure funds, which are supported by annual federal and state appropriations. As climate impacts worsen, they are going to need to tap that cash. And if they are smart, they will follow Illinois’ lead with a focus on water efficiency and green infrastructure to get the job done smartly.


Permeable Pavers in Aurora, IL image courtesy of IEPA via Flickr.