Seventy-five billion gallons of rain fell on Cook County April 18, making it one of the most severe rainstorms in recent history, officials said during a recent forum in Wilmette on stormwater runoff and flooding.
As the North Shore continues getting slammed by record storms, residents often do not know which government agencies to turn to, said Henrietta Saunders, president of the Lake Michigan League of Women Voters.
The group sponsored a panel and question-and-answer session in Wilmette last week on regional stormwater issues in an attempt to start to a discussion about coordinated responses to intense storms occurring in the Lake Michigan and Chicago River watersheds, and the flooding and water pollution that follow.
"The league is interested in environmental issues," Saunders said. "A few of us were sitting around and realized it's really confusing to understand who you go to if you have a problem with rain."
Officials with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the Illinois Coastal Management Program, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were on the panel, and they all agreed that while the April 18 "weather event" was severe, residents can expect to see more storms like it.
"There is a new normal," said David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
"Flooding is a very personal experience for those of you who have experienced it," he told the 100-plus people at the forum at St. Augustine's Trinity United Church, at 1140 Wilmette Ave.
Drainage problems are exacerbated by the fact that rooftops make up about 36 percent of the impervious surfaces in Cook County, and that combined with asphalt roads, parking lot and driveways creates a tremendous amount of rainwater runoff that completely overwhelms even the newest deep tunnel stormwater systems, officials said.
"There is a finite capacity," St. Pierre said.
Various governmental agencies are working on the problem, but individual property owners can take significant steps to help stem the flow of billions of gallons of unclean rainwater into stormwater systems, officials said, offering such suggestions as placing a 50- or 100-gallon rain barrel to collect rain from each downspout, planting a "rain garden" with plants that absorb much more rain than grass does and adding green roofs to buildings and homes.
"If you keep the rainwater on the ground longer, you won't have as much flooding," said Jan Carpenter, with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
"You want to keep water out of the system to begin with," added Ryan Wilson, program manager, with the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
Saunders said the Wilmette League of Women Voters just started a year-long study of stormwater issues, and will take recommendations to various government bodies when they're completed.
"It's clearly a situation where we need more coordinated governmental solutions to a problem we haven't had to address before," she said. "Climate change causes bigger storm events. It's not going to get better. It's probably going to get worse. We would like to have ways to address the issue that are not expensive and also minimize damage to people and the environment."