Illustration by Ellen Hao

Diverting the Waters

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District candidates sound off on strategies to handle storms

Flooded basements and roads in Chicago are rarely the result of swollen rivers or overbank flooding from Lake Michigan. The culprit, instead, is rainwater. Overdevelopment and a lack of green space in Chicago have left parts of the city unequipped to handle even relatively minor storms. When forests are replaced with asphalt, rainwater cannot be naturally absorbed into the ground, and the city’s aging sewer infrastructure has proven to be inadequate at handling increasingly common rainstorms. 

But this flooding is often left out of the conversation about how climate change will impact Chicago. Olga Bautista, the Southeast Side Community Planning Manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says this oversight can be attributed to the fact that urban flooding doesn’t align with the typical narratives about what flooding looks like. 

“When people think about flooding, they think about Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria,” Bautista said. “So when you ask people if they’ve experienced flooding, they say no. But in reality, basement seepage, sewer backups, flooded backyards, and flooded roadways are huge issues that people don’t associate with flooding.”

One agency of government owns most of the responsibility for urban flooding in Chicago: the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD). With three commissioners seeking re-election in a crowded Democratic primary next week, voters must consider how their policies would affect how Chicago deals with this largely overlooked aspect of environmental injustice.

Urban flooding poses severe threats to physical, mental, and financial well-being. A 2014 study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) reported that seventy-four percent of flood victims lost hours of work to clean up, sixty-three percent lost valuables, and thirteen percent observed health impacts on someone in their household. Damp basements have the potential to create mold, which is responsible for twenty-one percent of all asthma cases nationally. Meanwhile, eighty-four percent of flood victims report experiencing stress.

And flooding does not affect everyone equally. “This is definitely an environmental justice issue,” said Marcella Bondie Keenan, the director of CNT’s RainReady program. According to a 2018 report by CNT, neighborhoods on the South and West Sides are especially susceptible to urban flooding. Between 2007 and 2016, eighty-seven percent of flood damage insurance claims were paid out in zip codes where the majority of residents are people of color. 

“Redlining has affected pervasive patterns of disinvestment and poverty,” said Bondie Keenan. “Now you see those results today in the physical infrastructure of these neighborhoods. If you didn’t have segregation, you couldn’t have this disproportionate impact [of urban flooding].”

Daniella Pereira, the Vice President of Community Conservation at Openlands, suggested that the lack of green space in Chicago’s communities of color could be partially responsible for this disparity. “If you look at where redlining happened, you will see a difference in what kind of neighborhood you’re walking into in terms of the tree canopy that you see.” Trees absorb water, taking up rainfall that would otherwise flow into sewers; as a result, neighborhoods with fewer trees tend to see more flooding.

The impacts of urban flooding in marginalized communities are compounded by factors such as housing insecurity and inadequate healthcare. “On the Southeast Side, we feel like we’re a forgotten neighborhood,” said Olga Bautista. “There are all these other issues, like joblessness, food and housing insecurities… So people will put up with mold. They’ll put up with a lot of dangerous conditions.”

As climate change accelerates, urban flooding will likely get even worse. In the coming years, we will see more frequent and worse storms, as well as hotter days, which will dry up soil, making it more compact and less permeable to rainwater. 

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The Role of the MWRD

For decades, the MWRD has been a major player in addressing urban flooding. In 1975, the MWRD began to construct the Deep Tunnel, formally known as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, or TARP. The Deep Tunnel, which—according to the MWRD—is “unmatched in size throughout the world,” is a system of reservoirs and large tunnels designed to reduce flooding by capturing stormwater and sewage in reservoirs, and slowly pumping captured water to water reclamation plants after storms. This system is designed to prevent the plants from being overwhelmed and dumping sewage directly into the city’s waterways.

TARP, which is still under construction, has cost the city billions of dollars. Critics say that TARP’s infrastructure is outdated, and that the system was designed for a Chicago that experienced much less intense storms. Karen Hobbs, a former deputy environmental commissioner in Chicago, told Slate last year that we have this tendency in this country to think we can build our way out of stuff. And we can’t always build our way out.”

To address urban flooding in a changing climate, the MWRD has recognized a need to supplement its traditional investment in  “gray infrastructure,” such as pipes, tunnels, and reservoirs, with “green infrastructure” such as parks, porous pavements, and rain gardens. In other words, the MWRD must invest in green spaces that can absorb stormwater naturally. 

Through initiatives such as Space to Grow, the MWRD has begun to move in this direction. Space to Grow is a partnership of the MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, the nonprofit Healthy Schools Campaign, and Openlands to transform elementary school playgrounds into green schoolyards that can better absorb stormwater. In the coming years, the MWRD plans to invest more in green infrastructure, recognizing that  “valuable gray infrastructure technologies cannot always keep up with all of the runoff.”

On March 17, three seats on the MWRD’s nine-person board will be up for election, and urban flooding has emerged (at least among some candidates) as a campaign issue. The Weekly interviewed eight of the ten candidates running, asking each how they plan to address urban flooding. 

Incumbent Kimberly Du Buclet has made flooding her signature issue. “I grew up in a home out [near 87th and Stony Island] that flooded frequently, just about every time it rained,” Du Buclet told the Weekly. “It was such a burden on my family, trying to figure out how to stop the flooding, so home flooding has always been a very personal cause for me.” Du Buclet believes that green infrastructure, such as permeable pavements for alleys and green roofs, are crucial to addressing urban flooding. In her short time on the board since being elected in 2018, Du Buclet has delivered on her promise. In their endorsement of her, Cam Davis, and Eira Corral Sepúlveda, the Sun-Times cited her work to promote building codes that would reduce flooding, as well as programs to encourage the use of permeable pavement and rain barrels that reduce runoff.

Cam Davis, also an incumbent, lists “reducing flooding, especially in our most vulnerable communities” as the first priority on his website. His answer to the Weekly’s question about urban flooding was vague—he spoke broadly about using renewable energy to address climate change, which results in more intense rainfall that can exacerbate urban flooding problems. He did, however, advocate for giving community members a say in how MWRD-owned land is used. “For example,” he said, “if they would like to use MWRD property for community farming, as long as it helps reduce stormwater, it could provide space for people to have an inexpensive, healthy source of locally grown food.” 

The third member of the Democratic slate, Hanover Park Village Clerk Eira Corral Sepúlveda, is a candidate who, like Du Buclet, has experienced urban flooding personally, and says that managing rainwater is one of her top priorities. In her interview with the Weekly, Sepúlveda compared Chicago to Milwaukee, which by 2035 plans to have built green infrastructure that can absorb 740 million gallons of water every time it rains. By contrast, Chicago has only committed to building green infrastructure with 10 million gallons of capacity. Sepúlveda hopes to see green infrastructure projects with “equity prioritized,” and believes in developing green jobs training in Black and brown communities.

In his interview with the Weekly, incumbent Frank Avila praised the MWRD’s handling of urban flooding thus far. “We’re doing more green infrastructure, instead of gray infrastructure,” said Avila. “Every time we do a project, we implement green infrastructure like swales and native plants to absorb the water.” He mentioned Space to Grow and the Deep Tunnel project, saying he wants to build more reservoirs to deal with increased flooding, but also counts the MWRD’s work on Space to Grow among the most significant accomplishments of his tenure. When asked about equity issues with regards to flooding, Avila spoke about identifying “problem areas” on the South Side and creating a “master plan” to document which communities experience the most flooding.

Two other candidates stand out for their focus on infrastructure. Patricia Theresa Flynn, currently a trustee of the south suburban Village of Crestwood, gave a brief answer to the Weekly’s urban flooding question, speaking about the increasing frequency of flooding and the need to “ensur[e] that our Deep Tunnel project is on track to finish.” Flynn also referenced a MWRD project in Crestwood that helped move hundreds of homes out of the Tinley Creek floodplain as an example of how the MWRD can work with communities to reduce flooding. Michael Grace, a trustee of the southwest suburban South Lyons Township Sanitary District, also emphasized the importance of a “focus on infrastructure” when it comes to flooding, citing his experience replacing eighty percent of the district’s infrastructure. “Obviously, we want to prevent runoffs with green alternatives, such as rain barrels and green alleys and permeable pavers,” he told the Weekly. “But I think we really have to start with infrastructure.”

The Weekly also interviewed Dr. Shundar Lin, a water scientist, and Mike Cashman, a former water polo coach. Lin said the district has been “doing their best” to manage stormwater, but acknowledged that the Deep Tunnel has proven insufficient. Cashman acknowledged that managing floods is more difficult due to climate change, and suggested using MWRD-owned land to build more reservoirs. Heather Boyle and Deyon Dean, who are also running for seats on the district’s board, did not respond to multiple interview requests.

With much higher-profile races on Tuesday’s ballot, the MWRD elections are likely to be overshadowed. But Stacy Meyers, senior counsel at Openlands, says voters should take the MWRD elections into strong consideration. “If people care about climate change, and they care about water—water that they drink, water that they touch, water that they enjoy… They should care a whole lot about the board of [the] MWRD.”

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Anna Attie is a contributor to the Weekly. She last wrote about efforts to teach LGBTQ history in Chicago Public Schools.

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