Winnetka flooding illustration

Winnetka flooding illustration (Jennifer M. Kohnke / February 27, 2014)

Letters to the editor from Winnetka, Glenview and Park Ridge.

Winnetka 'secret'

A resident once complained to me that if "Winnetka's dirty little secret" got out, no one would want to move here anymore.

"What's the dirty little secret?" I asked.

"We flood!" was the response.

With 100-year rain events, I guess that would be a "dirty little secret" across the entire country. Even Chicago, with its deep tunnel system, floods with 100-year rains. The 2011 historic rain saw widespread flooding, with 1,100 homes (out of 4,400) affected in Winnetka, in a combination of storm and sanitary issues. While we all agreed that further mitigation must take place in storm and sanitary infrastructure, the question for storm water became: Do we construct for the 100-year level, hence the 8-foot-diameter tunnel and associated cost of $34.4 million (all in, almost $70 million over 30 years) to try and eradicate 100-year floods? Once the council finalized a plan, an in-depth conversation with the community would have been very helpful.

On March 18, all Winnetka voters will be able to voice their opinion on the tunnel through a citizens' referendum. Some are urging a yes vote as the only way to solve flooding issues, while others urge a no vote based upon environmental considerations and other viable, less costly options. Being advisory, the council can choose to ignore the vote altogether. Its members have already indicated that intent, unless results support tunnel financing, for which the council has already issued general obligation bonds for approximately half the cost.

How did we get to a referendum? Following the historic rain event, residents called for a blue ribbon committee to research and recommend flooding solutions. The 2011-2012 council decided to tackle this issue itself, with the promise to thoroughly engage and seek feedback from the community once it decided upon a plan. In that way, property owners would have the best efforts of the council and its team of hired consultants, as well as community input.

Due to term limits, which I support at all levels of government, the council turned over last May. Rather than following through on the previous council's commitment to in-depth public engagement, the plan was quickly approved over the summer months. Permitting by state and federal agencies for tunnel construction remains undetermined. The water treatment structure at the Lake Michigan outfall has yet to be designed; build-out and maintenance costs are undetermined. All property owners will be assessed beginning in July.

Winnetka's dirty little secret? There never was one — unless you consider that there may be no Plan B if the tunnel does not receive regulatory approval, and the council has indicated that if that is the case, it may spend those storm water funds on "other capital projects."

Jessica Tucker, Winnetka village president (2009-2013), village trustee (2004-2008)

Tunnel referendum

Protect Our Water Winnetka, a group of Winnetka citizens, continues to recommend that voters vote no on the March 18 Willow Road Tunnel Referendum. POWW has taken great care to be accurate and truthful in its communications. POWW has attempted to illustrate the magnitude of the pollution that will enter the lake in a way that will be understandable by residents who are not scientists.

A village trustee has repeatedly stated that the water going into the lake will be 80 percent pure. Therefore, 20 percent of the discharge into the lake will not be pure, or "polluted." Using this statement and a rain event peak volume of 54 million gallons, simple math tells us that 20 percent of the discharge into the lake, equivalent to more than 10 million gallons, is polluted. However you measure it, pollution still enters the lake; dilution does not negate pollution.

Clean Water Act regulations are weak in addressing storm-water quality. The village's own water sampling shows Winnetka's storm water doesn't even meet current standards; it contains elevated levels of E. coli, nitrogen, phosphorus, total dissolved solids and total suspended solids. Water samples from Elder Street Beach, while improved since 2011, still exceed standards.

Instead of devising linguistic strategies to divert attention from their aim to only meet the minimum of already weak standards, and instead of trying to discredit POWW, the village should be working to educate people and themselves about dumping both biological and chemical pollution into Lake Michigan. Village trustees are stewards not just for Winnetkans but for the water quality of our entire region. The trustees' legacy will be our legacy to our neighbors, as well as to our children and grandchildren.

Instead of developing a comprehensive, integrated solution that includes green infrastructure upfront, and with only preliminary, estimated data, the village has forged ahead with a giant, expensive and risky tunnel first and has made only vague statements about the possibility of green infrastructure being added after the fact. This is not an environmentally or cost-effective way to proceed, and it is not the forward-thinking way the rest of the country is proceeding.

Debbie Ross and Anne Wilder, members, Protect Our Water Winnetka

Storm water

The Village of Winnetka recently reported that most of what will be discharged to Lake Michigan from the proposed Willow Road storm water tunnel is merely water. Urban storm water is not free of pollutants and contains a number of contaminants including elevated levels of solids, nutrients, numerous trace metals, oils and greases, polychlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons, organic herbicides and pesticides, and fecal contamination.