WINNETKA – The two women sitting at the table have been diligently seeking answers about managing stormwater in Winnetka for two years now. Given that Village of Winnetka Trustees recently voted to look for alternatives to a stormwater tunnel with a price tag of $58.5 million, both women believe now more than ever the time is ripe for a better way. A solution for stormwater management needs to be over-arching with spokes spreading out in many directions, like an umbrella, they say.
“We’ve been emphasizing the need for a Plan B, and are thrilled the village is seeking one,” says Anne Wilder of Protect Our Water Winnetka (POWW). “Winnetka needs to go for an alternative plan that’s comprehensive, integrative, and sustainable,” she said.
Since stormwater has enveloped sections of Winnetka several times over the past few years, the village has pursued a tunnel project on Willow Road designed to empty excess water into Lake Michigan.
“We’ve been asking the village to take an environmental look at everything and see what each flooded house could do personally on their own property,” said Debbie Ross, also of POWW. “This can all be calculated scientifically with environmental engineers. Then you make your plans about what else the village needs. We know we need new pipes. There’s no question of that. But do we need the tunnel?”
Protect Our Water Winnetka is a local group that rose up two years ago to give voice to concerned local folks wanting to protect water quality in the North Shore’s sparkling gem, Lake Michigan. Now the group is applauding the decision by the village to look at alternatives that will safeguard both water quality and taxpayer wallets. POWW has joined hands with two environmental agencies, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). Both organizations have made Freedom of Information requests on behalf of POWW and have suggested a panoply of options that encompasses green solutions to complement gray infrastructure.
“The most important thing is that $58 million dollars is a lot of money,” says Karen Hobbs, NRDC senior policy analyst, “and that has to be balanced with the very real impact that people are feeling in their homes. Constantly having your basement flooded over and over again every time we get a storm is unacceptable, right? Clearly something needs to be done.”
Given that costs have kept climbing, re-examining the path forward is essential, POWW and its partners agree. “Make sure that you are fully considering other options,” Hobbs continued. “How do you best balance the investment that you need to protect people’s homes and also protect the village’s long-term financial health and guard against climate change elements?”
Heavy rains in Chicagoland keep cresting records. On a very wet recent Monday, June 16, 2.5 inches reportedly poured down on O’Hare Airport, hitting a record for the calendar day, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Regarding the record-breaking rains, fingers point to the changing climate. “It’s hard to really argue with the fact that we are getting more intensive rains in this region,” Hobbs said. “We know that in the last 10-15 years, these extreme precipitation events continue to occur and get worse. The current infrastructure that we have under our cities and towns isn’t up to snuff, right? It can’t handle all this precipitation.”
Effective stormwater management uses many tentacles to reach out across the community. “The village needs to make sure that they are incorporating climate change projections into their planning model,” Hobbs said. “They need to make sure that they have fully exhausted all alternatives, not just with infrastructure, but other types of distributive stormwater management, whether that’s permeable pavements, whether that’s building retention underneath sidewalks and underneath driveways, so you can slow that entryway of stormwater into people’s basements.”
Assessing the scope of the problem by closely looking at properties impacted by stormwater is essential. “The Village of Winnetka needs to start by getting a proper understanding of the flooding problem at property scale–which properties are impacted, at what scale and cost,” said Harriet Festing, Director of the Water Program at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
“The only way of getting this level of information is to carry out detailed property assessments,” Festing said. “Properties are impacted by flooding in different ways, some will be affected by overland flooding, others by sewer back up, and yet others by seepage. In some of these properties, the most effective way of tackling that problem is actually within the property itself.”
Managing water close to home helps keep tainted water out of Lake Michigan. The beauty and proximity of the Great Lake is one of the reasons people are drawn to Winnetka. “Best practices throughout the country are combining this green infrastructure to protect waters,” said Debbie Ross of POWW. “There’s a town in Minnesota, named Burnsville, where everyone got on board and cut their stormwater enormously.” (See link below.)
In order to get residents reaching out to support any initiative –- especially those who aren’t directly affected by flooding — a final plan should have a community-wide reward. “As a broad principle, you don’t want to be building pipes or digging holes that don’t bring broader aesthetic recreational and economic benefit to the community,” said Festing. For example, if retention ponds for stormwater end up in the picture, they could be encircled by a bike trail and tree plantings that get everyone applauding the result.
And finally, the umbrella solution can be one that reaches all over the suburbs that hug the lake. “Winnetka is setting a precedent for every village along the lake,” said Ross of POWW. “They should be getting together and talking about how the issue needs to be solved regionally.”
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