Why Chicago Needs to Get Serious About Climate Change

When the subject of climate change comes up, what often comes to mind are images of coastal cities sinking under rising tides and lonely polar bears adrift among melting glaciers. But rising temperatures aren’t just affecting coastal regions — cities like Chicago in the midwest are starting to show signs of inadequate planning in the face of global warming. Chicago’s aging infrastructure is endangering the city’s most precious natural resource: clean water.

Chicago is one of the largest cities to still utilize combined sewer systems, systems that are usually found in older communities and are remnants of the nation’s earliest attempts to process sewage. Combined sewers are pipes that convey both sewage and stormwater to treatment facilities. When heavy rains occur, however, the system can quickly become overwhelmed, carrying untreated sewage and stormwater to outfalls that dump directly into the Chicago River.

These events are called Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), and happen on average 40 times per year. According to a City of Chicago report, “a rain event of as little as 0.67 inches in a 24-hour period can trigger a CSO in the Chicago River.”

Besides the Chicago River, Lake Michigan can also be on the receiving end of sewage water if the river levels rise too high. This causes the locks separating the river from the lake to open, reversing the contaminated river’s flow right into the lake’s sparkling waters. CSOs also cause hundreds of basements to be backed up with sewage around the city. And if you think the smell is the worst part of a flooded basement, you haven’t heard about the maggot infestations that sewage can dump into your home.

A warming earth will only exacerbate these problems. Last year’s winter was declared the warmest in history, and in 2016, February’s warm temperatures in Chicago broke 100-year-old records. Warmer temperatures mean more rain, and Chicago is already seeing a rise in annual precipitation. The frequency of rainfall events has doubled since 1970, and annual precipitation could increase by as much as 20 to 30 percent by the end of the century, according to the City of Chicago. In June of 2015, heavy flooding caused the polluted Chicago River to reverse into Lake Michigan and the newly-opened Riverwalk.

Despite all of these warning signs, the city continues to be woefully underprepared to deal with damaging climate change effects. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) ranks Illinois’s readiness to deal with climate change as poor, citing inadequate planning and funding to compensate for increased flooding.

Tackling the challenge of climate action is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), an independent institution that has been governing Chicago’s wastewater treatment since 1889. But it’s unclear whether or not the MWRD is up to the task, often proving to be an obstacle rather than an advocate in Chicago’s growing need for sustainable solutions.

In 1900, the MWRD accomplished one of its greatest feats of engineering when it reversed the Chicago River’s flow away from Lake Michigan and towards the Mississippi River basin. Although the flow reversal succeeded in keeping harmful contaminants out of the lake, it did not address the treatment of the river itself. In fact, for years the MWRD refused to disinfect the sewage-laden river, ignoring the fact that many residents utilize the river for boating, fishing, and swimming. A decades-long uphill battle ensued, with the MWRD continuously resisting disinfection because the price was too costly and the health benefits were unclear. After much pressure from the EPA’s regional director and clean water advocates, the district finally voted in favor of disinfection in 2011.

Now that the Chicago River is finally on its way to becoming a clean and safe waterway, the MWRD is focusing on another grey infrastructure solution: the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), also commonly known as the Deep Tunnel project. Begun in 1975, TARP aims to reduce the number of CSO events by constructing large, underground tunnels and reservoirs capable of storing stormwater when the combined sewers reach capacity. Currently, 109.4 miles of tunnel have been completed, along with one reservoir with a 2.6 billion gallon capacity. When the project is completed by 2029, the capacity will be approximately 17.5 billion gallons. TARP has already reportedly been able to capture 85 percent of the CSOs in its service area.

However, many believe that TARP, while a good start and noble effort, will not be sufficient in solving Chicago’s flooding problems by itself. The project was conceived of decades ago, long before climate change and increased precipitation were ever a consideration. In 2011, the EPA filed a lawsuit against the MWRD, claiming the district was violating the Clean Water Act by not sufficiently addressing CSO pollution. The EPA settled on a consent decree, in which the MWRD proposed that TARP would be sufficient in satisfying regulations.

However, the NRDC didn’t think so, which is why they intervened on the EPA’s consent decree, in addition to a separate lawsuit they filed against the MWRD. Although these lawsuits never went anywhere, the point remains that the consent decree is too lax, and TARP can’t be the sole answer to the Chicago’s flooding problem. Sewer overflows will still occur because the smaller, local pipes that lead into TARP cannot convey the water fast enough, creating bottlenecks. “You can build a bathtub as big as you want,” said NRDC’s Chicago senior attorney Ann Alexander, “but if you’re trying to fill it with a drinking straw, you’re going to have a problem.”

The decree also allows for pre-authorized delays in TARP’s completion, which is unacceptable in light of the rapidly changing climate. The reservoirs are constructed from large quarries, which are mined by private contractors. Delays are likely due to decreased demand for the rock from the quarries.

What Chicago needs to be doing instead of solely relying on gray engineering is investing more of its resources into green infrastructure solutions. Green stormwater infrastructure refers to methods that capture stormwater before they enter the combined sewer systems, such as permeable pavement, retention ponds, and green roofs. Large cities such as Philadelphia and New York City have already committed over $2 billion and $5 billion, respectively, to green infrastructure plans over the next 20 years. And just recently, Washington D.C. joined the stormwater revolution by implementing a creative way to finance green infrastructure.

It should be noted that both Philadelphia and New York City were mandated to commit massive financial investments to green infrastructure under a consent decree to comply with the Clean Water Act. The City of Chicago was never issued such a decree — the responsibility to comply with the Clean Water Act lies with the MWRD. The consent decree issued to the MWRD only requires a mere $325,000 to be spent on green infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the City of Chicago is doing what it can to aid its runoff problem. The city’s 2014 Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy states that Chicago will allocate $50 million dollars over the next five years towards green solutions, which can reduce up to 250 million gallons of runoff per year. Programs all over the city have been implemented to reduce the volume of stormwater entering the system. For example, the Green Alley project aims to install porous pavement in alleys that typically have no drainage structures. Since 2007, over 200 alleys have been installed and are capable of detaining 17 million gallons per year. The Green Roofs initiative has installed over 300 roofs in Chicago, detaining and estimated 70 million gallons per year.

The MWRD must do its part and work with the City of Chicago and its residents to ensure our waterways are protected in the face of climate change. A new strategy needs to be adopted, shifting the focus from treating the symptoms of pollution to targeting its source. Sustainable, green solutions are the key to preventing Chicago from becoming the country’s next environmental crisis.