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Feds and village heads talk flood control at CMAP forum

by Chris Bentley
Jan 27, 2011

With last summer’s heavy rains fresh on the minds of regional planners and homeowners, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning talked water Thursday morning at a forum on regional flooding and stormwater management.

The forum was the second in a series designed by CMAP to help implement the Water 2050 plan adopted by 11 Chicagoland counties in January 2010.

“The issue of flooding is nothing new to us,” said Tim Loftus, project director for water resources at CMAP. “We need to focus on how to prepare and reduce our vulnerability to it.”

Several speakers at the forum identified the state’s aging infrastructure as a key source of that vulnerability: The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Illinois a D+ in its annual infrastructure report card last year. That’s marginally higher than the nation’s overall grade of D, which President Obama noted in his State of the Union address Tuesday — little consolation to those affected.

With poor marks in navigable waterways and roads, among other things, Illinois’ report card reflects what Chicago residents know all too well when their streets and basements flood after nearly every heavy rain.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency reserves one fifth of its federal  stimulus dollars for “green infrastructure” projects, including water efficiency initiatives. U.S. EPA also received a boost from the federal plan, including $4 billion for wastewater infrastructure projects through a clean water state revolving fund.

Other federal support comes in the form of flood insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Association’s national flood insurance program reduces premiums for participating states based on a point system rewarding “flood preparedness.”

“[American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] was a big catalyst for green grants,” said Andy Bielanski of the U.S. EPA. “We can provide the funding, but we need good projects on the other end.”

On a regional level, however, villages such as west suburban Lisle, aren’t waiting for help from above. In addition to $400,000 from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Lisle devoted $2 million of village funding to a downtown green redevelopment project.

“We had a downtown that desperately needed revitalization,” said Mary Lou Kalsted, staff engineer and stormwater administrator for Lisle. She said repeated floodings of the mayor’s residence underscored the need for floodplain management in the town of 23,000.

The village commissioned a regional stormwater basin to help collect water when the area floodplain overflows, a region which encompasses seven downtown buildings in addition to residential neighborhoods.
Landscape architects incorporated native plants into the basin design. With an average root depth of 6 feet — as opposed to 6 inches for grass — the prairie dropseed and big bluestem help water infiltrate the soil instead of running off the surface. “It completely transformed the area,” Kalsted said.

Loftus said he hopes that by hosting forums like this, local examples like Lisle’s will beget other projects in the region.

“As a mayor you feel like you are on an island sometimes,” said Mike Gorman, mayor of Riverside, and CMAP’s newest board member. The suburb is located on the Des Plaines River and was hit hard by flooding in 2008 and 2010.

“It’s financing,” Gorman said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means you have to be creative … I’m going to bring back ideas here to my community, and to my neighbors.”