Friday, June 19, 2009

River Roads

With more than a year's worth of above average rainfall in the record books, my fellow Chicagoans and I have been dealing with a sharp increase in street flooding. In fact, it now seems that even a moderately heavy rainfall turns intersections into giant puddles (and sidestreets into swiftly moving streams) in a matter of minutes. It's quite common to see diligent homeowners on the street corners after a downpour, in their galoshes, jabbing a broomstick into the storm drains, hoping to loosen whatever is "clogging" the sewers.

After wading home through nearly a foot of water (thanks for the pic, Danielle!), rushing down the street after a monsoon-like rain-- in February-- I seriously considered investing in a canoe. Even the water-main replacement projects have done little to relieve the flooding! What most residents don't know, though, is that it's not a glut of fallen leaves that clogs our sewers, it's a problem that was intentionally created by the Department of Water Management. After the "great flood" of 1997, the city installed nearly 200,000 rainblockers, or intake restrictor valves, in neighborhood storm drains.

The purpose of these valves is to slow the amount of rain that enters the system. Like many older cities, Chicago has a combined sewer system, which collects both sewage and storm runoff. An influx of storm water into the city's sewer system forces raw sewage releases into Lake Michigan or-- worse yet-- into the streets or peoples' basements. Reasoning that flooded streets are preferable to flooded basements (no argument here), the city boasts that their rainblocker program was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, and at only a quarter of what it would cost to actually improve the sewer system.

What the city fails to mention is that this program is a "band-aid" for an actual solution that was started two decades before, that (like so many things in this city) is behind schedule and over budget-- the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan. Better known as "The Deep Tunnel" program, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the project as out of money and far from finished. Begun in 1975, the program called for more than 110 miles of tunnels to be built under Chicago and its municipalities. These tunnels would then carry sewage and storm water to an appropriate number of reservoirs, where it would be stored until it could be properly treated and safely released.

While the tunnel system is nearly complete, the reservoirs (which were originally slated to be finished in 2015) are virtually non-existent. The result of which is, as expected, flooded streets and raw sewage releases into Lake Michigan. And while the EPA lauds Chicago for testing the water quality of Lake Michigan with such great frequency, the tests show unacceptable levels of E. Coli more than a third of the time, which leads to beach closures throughout the summer. When the red and yellow flags are flying, you really don't want to make that day a beach day.

My vote (not that it matters) is to dedicate a chunk of the city's stimulus money to finishing what was started more than 30 years ago, to reduce (and potentially eliminate) the sewage and flooding problems that have plagued this city since its inception. Until then, though, who wants to go swimming?

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