Storm water drain and infrastructure
Illinois’ abundant water resources face a number of infrastructure planning challenges, including storm-water runoff, increasing residential, industrial and commercial use, and impacts from climate change.

Urban storm-water runoff is one of the major sources of impairment to Illinois’ lakes and streams. Impervious surfaces (roads, rooftops) greatly increase the volume and velocity of storm-water runoff, which picks up pollutants that can degrade water quality if discharged untreated into lakes or streams.

Urban runoff pollutants include: sediment; oil, grease, and toxics from vehicles; pesticides and nutrients from lawns and gardens; viruses, bacteria, and nutrients from pet waste and septic systems; road salts; and heavy metals from roof shingles, motor vehicles, and other sources. In periods of rainfall or snow melt, the waste-water volume in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the system; in which case, the system is designed to overflow and discharge excess waste-water directly to nearby streams, rivers, lakes, or estuaries. Polluted runoff and combined sewer overflows can harm people recreating on affected waterways, kill aquatic life and contaminate important sources of drinking water.

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Illinois residents and businesses use a great deal of our water supply on a daily basis. Illinois industry, farms, businesses, and households use 21 billion gallons of water a day. Roughly 20 billion gallons a day are withdrawn from surface waters and another billion gallons per day are withdrawn from groundwater. Geographically, the overwhelming amount of water withdrawn is used in northern Illinois, where most of the population, business, and industry are located. Half of the water withdrawals in Illinois go towards thermoelectric power generation.

The challenges facing the state’s water resources are further complicated by the impacts of climate change. As the climate continues to warm, precipitation patterns change and in recent decades, the number of extreme rainfall events has increased dramatically. These type of precipitation events lead to excessive runoff that transports pollution and contributes to localized flooding. Statewide, the annual number of precipitation events greater than 3 inches has increased by 83% over the last 50 years, and the amount of total precipitation during these events has increased by 100%. As the climate continues to warm, the number of days with rainfall greater than 1 inch is projected to increase up to 30% by mid-century.

While major floods on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers attract the national spotlight, floods are common in Chicago and its suburbs. Cook County has had 11 federally declared emergencies due to flooding since 1991. In those heavily urbanized areas, heavy rains overwhelm storm-water systems, causing localized flooding. Often, this flooding could be prevented with proper infrastructure planning and implementation.

The frequency of larger storms that cause this kind of flooding will increase, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Chicago can expect today’s “10-year storm” (4.47 inches of rain in 24 hours) to occur every five years by the end of the century and today’s “100-year storm” (7.58 inches of rain in 24 hours) will become the 50-year storm. It’s worth noting that Chicago has already experienced two 10-year storms in the last four years and three 100-year storms since 1980.

For the Chicago area, heavy rains of this magnitude also mean trouble for Lake Michigan and the millions of people who use its beaches and rely on it for drinking water. Heavy rains combined with low water levels on Lake Michigan causes the Chicago River to “re-reverse” itself and flow back into the lake (as it did on June 16, 2015), carrying millions of gallons of untreated sewage with it.

One solution to help Illinois address water quality and supply concerns, as well as help communities better manage the changes caused by climate change, is the use of green storm-water infrastructure, which uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments. Green infrastructure may refer to natural areas that provide habitat, flood protection, cleaner air, and cleaner water, or to storm-water management systems that mimic nature by soaking up and storing water.

Current Laws
While more needs to be done to protect Illinois’s water resources, there have been several legislative successes in protecting Illinois water so far:
Illinois River Coordinating Council:
  • Created by the Illinois River Restoration Act of 1997 to coordinate initiatives, projects, and funding to promote the ecological health of the Illinois River and its tributaries by addressing issues identified in the Integrated Management Plan for the Illinois River Watershed.
  • Chaired by the Lt. Governor and composed of a diverse group of citizens, not-for-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies.
Mississippi River Coordinating Council:
  • Created by the Mississippi River Coordinating Council Act in 2010, the Council is modeled after the Illinois River Coordinating Council and is charged with coordinating policies and programs promoting the intertwined environmental and economic health of the Mississippi River and its tributaries within the State of Illinois.
  • Chaired by the Lt. Governor and iscomposed of a diverse group of citizens, not-for-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies.
Vermilion River Middle Fork Act and National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act:
  • The Middle Fork River is Illinois’ first State Scenic River, designated in 1986 by Governor Thompson. In 1989 U.S. Secretary of the Interior Lujan designated the Middle Fork as a National Scenic River. The Middle Fork is the first river in Illinois to be included in the National Wild Scenic Rivers System and is protected by state and federal law.
  • Provide permanent protection for a 17-mile segment of the river in Vermilion County, including conservation easements on both sides of the river. Most of the area along the river is forested, and there are also several prairie sites.
  • The Middle Fork River Valley supports a great diversity of plants and animals including 57 types of fish, 45 different mammals, and 190 kinds of birds. Of this diverse wildlife, there are 24 species officially identified as State threatened or endangered species. The Middle Fork River valley also includes unusual geologic formations, various historic sites, and over 8,400 acres of public parks.
Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact:
In 2005, the Great Lakes Governors and the Premiers of Ontario and Quebec signed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. At the same time, the Governors endorsed the companion Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which became law in the United States in 2008. The Compact is legally binding among the eight Great Lakes states and the federal government, mandating the states to jointly determine how to manage the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.
State Revolving Fund (SRF):
Since its inception, the state’s Clean Water and Drinking Water SRF has disbursed more than $3 billion in low interest loans to municipalities to help improve their water infrastructure. This financial assistance has been critical to helping communities construct and improve wastewater and drinking water treatment systems.

But financing from the SRF has not been available for communities to deal with the growing challenge of stormwater management, to implement innovative green infrastructure solutions, or increase their ability to deal with the increasing future risks of floods and droughts. Legislation passed in 2014 needs to be implemented by the Illinois EPA to allow SRF support to be available for these purposes.

Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act:
Helps local governments and other organizations fund the implementation of green infrastructure best management practices. In 2013, the General Assembly passed two bills designed to give municipalities and counties more tools and authority to increase the use of green infrastructure in stormwater management. So far, the IGIG has awarded over $14 million for 35 projects, 15 of which are complete. The completed projects have: reduced nitrogen load by 960 lbs/yr; reduced phosphorus by 276 lbs/yr; reduced suspended solids by 62,113 lbs/yr; and reduced sediment load by 223 tons/yr.

Note: IGIG is in a state of change and at this time, no new applications are being accepted.

Illinois Wildlife Action Plan:
The Wildlife Action Plan ensures that our state’s biodiversity and abundance of wildlife is maintained for the long-term by focusing on habitat. The Green Cities campaign part of the plan looks to improve community planning efforts by including open space and wildlife needs into those plans. Additionally, the campaign addresses urban area use in migration routes, and promotes habitat protection and restoration whenever possible.
Urban Flooding Awareness Act:
The Act establishes a working group with representatives from state, federal, local agencies, and other interested parties to review and evaluate the latest research, policies, and procedures regarding urban flooding. Urban flooding can happen anywhere, not just in floodplains. This Act helps Illinois communities better understand urban flooding and identify innovative stormwater solutions to protect homes and the environment.
Public Water Supply Operations Act:
In furtherance of safeguarding the health and well-being of the populace, this Act requires any community water supply system to designate an operator who will be directly responsible for that system’s water supply and distribution. It also requires operators to be properly certified with the skills necessary to operate the community water supply.
Our Vision for Infrastructure and Planning in Illinois
Illinois should engage in long term planning to protect water supply and quality that emphasizes water conservation.
Protecting and restoring our waters for people and wildlife requires an integrated approach to water resource management.
The health of our rivers and the integrity of our drinking water are too entwined to silo our water quality and water supply solutions. Regulations and programs must both incentivize and require actions that consciously recognize these connections. For instance, the Illinois State Revolving Loan programs can prioritize low-interest loans and offer principal forgiveness for innovative solutions, such as green infrastructure and advanced treatment, to reduce flooding, improve water quality, and protect our public water supplies. Water supply permits and programs should consider conservation measures, like the systemic use of green infrastructure, that improve the quality of our rivers and lakes. Our investments and regulatory requirements should reflect long-term plans and commitments to improve and restore our water resources as natural assets, economic drivers, and community centers.
Illinois should ensure its regulatory requirements fully enable the use of green infrastructure to help communities better manage storm-water.
Green infrastructure solutions reduce the risk of flooding by intercepting storm-water before it gets into the sewers, capturing it in swales, buffer strips, porous pavement, and other natural or engineered structures that allow storm-water to soak into the ground or be retained for a short period of time. Green infrastructure solutions can dramatically reduce the amount of storm-water that runs off a specific site. If implemented at scale across a community, green infrastructure can diminish the risk of urban flooding by reducing the risk of storm-water systems being overwhelmed by intense rainfall events. Programs that leverage agency support and engage communities to systemically build and maintain green infrastructure hubs, such as innovative school and community gardens, can both dramatically reduce localized flooding and cultivate a water ethic to ultimately transform how people in each affected area see, value and manage water.
Illinois should upgrade its aging water infrastructure and fix leaks in the system.
IEPA has convened a water loss accounting advisory committee and trained hundreds of utilities across the state on the basics of water loss accounting. The State should continue this effort, providing technical assistance funding to utilities that have completed the training and have identified necessary infrastructure to cost-effectively repair leaks.
  • Illinois should assign State Revolving Funds (SRF) to projects that result in decreased water usage, decreased discharges of water pollution, increased use of green infrastructure, and increased community resilience.
Learn More and Take Action
Illinois Integrated Water Quality Report, 2016: Water Resource Assessment Information and List of Impaired Waters
Illinois Green Infrastructure Grant Program for Stormwater Management Biannual Report
More on sewage overflows into the Great Lakes by the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Prairie Rivers Network on preventing stormwater runoff.
Friends of the Chicago River on threats to the Chicago River.
More on the importance of stormwater management by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s (CMAP).

Partners for Parks and Wildlife

Partners for Parks and Wildlife (PPW) is a grassroots coalition that is dedicated to secure and increase funding for open space and park acquisition, natural area preservation, wildlife habitat protection and recreational opportunities in Illinois.

Learn More About Climate Change

The U.S. EPA’s website on climate change was once a great resource for basic scientific information on the topic and we look forward to the day that it is again. Until then, the City of Chicago is making sure its citizens have access to research and information.


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