Nasty: Another Chicago River Re-Reversal Highlights Need for Climate Action

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Last night massive violent storms rumbled through Chicago dumping billions of gallons of stormwater on the region. That water overwhelmed stormwater systems, which dumped the slurry of runoff, contaminated rainwater and sewage into the Chicago River and its associated waterways.

And, as has been the case more and more frequently in recent years, the river couldn’t handle the influx. Water levels in the River swelled and the locks that separate the waterways from Lake Michigan were opened to relieve the pressure. For seven hours, the Chicago River flowed into the Great Lakes bringing millions of gallons of tainted water to Lake Michigan. In the city’s glittering downtown, the water on the river’s main stem rose high enough to overtop the wall protecting the new river walk construction site.

Unsurprisingly, all of Chicago’s lake beaches are closed today. And the storm will likely keep Lake Michigan’s cooling waters off limits for the 4th of July holiday. You should never swim the day after a rain, when bacteria levels at beaches skyrocket. And it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid the waters for three days after a big storm. Last night was a really big storm…

Closed beaches in Chicago are a very clear, visible result of climate change. As we have noted repeatedly, the sorts of violent storms we saw last night are increasing in frequency, and so are these river re-reversals. The Chicago Tribune highlights this issue in their coverage today:

“Despite construction of the $3 billion Deep Tunnel project, Lake Michigan has been hit harder by sewage overflows in recent years, mostly because of a handful of monsoon-like storms that quickly fill the giant stormwater tunnels winding below Chicago and the Cook County suburbs.

From 2007 through 2013, records show, the district released nearly 32 billion gallons of runoff and wastewater into the lake. By contrast, 12 billion gallons poured out from 1985 through 2006, the year the Deep Tunnel sewer pipes were completed.

Climate change is projected to increase the frequency of rainfall greater than 2.5 inches a day, the amount that can force runoff into Lake Michigan, according to a study by scientists from the University of Illinois and Texas Tech University. By the end of the century, the number of big storms could jump by a whopping 160 percent.”

This is no small thing. NRDC’s beachwater contamination report, “Testing the Waters” coincidentally released last week, notes significant economic impacts. A University of Chicago study that puts the tab for closed beaches on the City at $2 million a year. Another puts the tab at $37,000/day lost to our economy every day a beach closes on Lake Michigan. The price is assumedly significantly higher during the summer’s banner holiday when tourists are flocking to town.

But that is a pittance compared to the bigger costs of flooded basements and exposure of the public to the rogue’s gallery of waterborne diseases present in the Chicago River. And as we face mounting impacts from climate change, it gets harder and harder to make the case action is not desperately needed. We need to get serious about rethinking the river, which is at the heart of the City’s infrastructure and a source of growing investment which is undercut by these reversals. Some work has been done, but far more is needed.

Relying solely on the brute force approaches of the past will not solve problems like Chicago experienced last night – and will experience far more frequently in the future.  Bigger pipes and larger retention tunnels cannot handle all the problems that are in Chicago’s future. Now is the time to be looking at a wider array of solutions. Other cities across the country are finding that green infrastructure can help decrease  the problems from major storms like Chicago experienced this week. Green infrastructure (picture green roofs, permeable pavers, street trees and rain gardens) mimic the services nature provides, by letting rainwater percolate into the ground instead of getting shunted into culverts and storm drains. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Syracuse are cities that are integrating green infrastructure into their stormwater solutions; the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District needs to step up too.

More importantly, as a nation we have to strike at the root causes for this mess. Climate scientists have predicted this phenomenon for decades. And the issue will be more acute, along with droughts like the one that decimated Illinois’ corn crop a couple years ago and reduced the mighty Mississippi to a dribble so weak that barge traffic was essentially stopped (adding billions of dollars to cost of moving goods, forcing millions to be spent in diverting water from Illinois lakes into the River and emergency dredging of the river to allow barges to float).

The Obama Administration has advanced the most important climate action in history in the form of the Clean Power Plan, which would slash the largest source of carbon emissions in America: power plants. In Illinois, we need not look far to see why this action is so necessary for our economy. The state needs to take a leadership role in the Midwest to help lead the way towards implementation of this important policy. Otherwise, the impacts of climate change experienced by our kids and grandkids are going to make closed beaches, flooded basements and crisped corn crops look quaint. Last night it wasn’t just the booming thunder that was a wakeup call. The Chicago River re-reversals make clear we have serious work to do.


Image of downtown Riverwalk flooding by Marissa Bailey, used with permission via her twitter feed: @MarissaBaileyTV

This post is a modified version of an Op-Ed that ran on Crain’s Chicago Business.