Whenever I walk around Wrigleyville today, my mind wanders to strange things. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the underground sewer system. Yes, I’m a bit weird like that, but water infrastructure is a critical and unheralded part of urban development. With the recent rise of tourism in Wrigleyville came a much higher demand for water and sewer services. Imagine all the new toilets and showers running at the fully booked Hotel Zachary. Hotels put a big strain on infrastructure, especially on water resources. This piece from hotenewsnow.com states,
“At a 100-room hotel with 60% occupancy and 1.5 guests taking a shower each day in each room, about 90 showers a day are taken, using more than 1,500 gallons of water daily. Over the course of a year, that’s more than 500,000 gallons of water per hotel. Of course, the typical hotel uses a lot of water for other things, especially laundry, but also everything from cooking to ice in drinks at the bar.”
So just from showers, assuming 60% occupancy, water demand is 500,000 gallons annually. That also assumes 1.5 guests per room taking a shower. These stats are very conservative. In high demand areas like Wrigleyville, the number could easily breach 1,000,000 gallons per year, just on showers.
In 2017, the city of Chicago introduced a new tax on water and sewer services. That’s not to insinuate that the redevelopment of Wrigleyville triggered that tax, but it is to say that the cost of water and sewer management is not cheap, and it’s rising. Growing up, I remember that the cheapest bill my parents had to pay was the water bill. Today, in 2018, necessary services such as water and sewer are no longer a commodity; water is becoming more and more scare, and protecting Lake Michigan as a resource is and should be a priority. These services are complex, and they require a hefty budget to deliver. Chicago’s sewer system, which is part of water management, is having a very hard time handling the deluge of rain water that comes with a recently much wetter midwestern climate. This article from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com shows that peak stormwater flow in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio has skyrocketed.
The article specifically talks about how city planners use historical measures of water flow to construct drainage and sewage infrastructure. When the future trends are indicating higher and higher water flows, it’s no wonder that stormwater has become a major constant issue for residents in the urban midwest. A Chicago Tribune article from June of 2013 claims that between 2007 and 2011, the federal government and private insurers paid at least $660 million in residential flooding and sewage back-up claims in Chicago and Cook County alone. This does not include the flooding that occurs on a yearly basis along the Fox River in Lake County and others.
On top of that, the article states that poor neighborhoods suffer the hardest; median household income was below the Cook County average in more than 66% of the zip codes with the most costly claims.
Here is something even more shocking. In Illinois, an agency called the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is responsible for managing water flow through pipes and sewer systems in Cook County, Illinois (excluding Chicago). From the MWRD website, their mission is to,
“The District will protect the health and safety of the public in its service area, protect the quality of the water supply source (Lake Michigan), improve the quality of water in watercourses in its service area, protect businesses and homes from flood damages, and manage water as a vital resource for its service area. The District’s service area is 883.5 square miles of Cook County, Illinois. The District is committed to achieving the highest standards of excellence in fulfilling its mission.”
It’s is clearly a very broad mission. MWRD is a public agency supported by state tax dollars. It is independent from the Chicago city government, in so far as the state of Illinois is independent from city of Chicago (which is not very far). That is to say, even though they are fiscally independent, the MWRD gets a significant amount of funding indirectly from Chicago tax payers. The MWRD’s big on-going project is known as Deep Tunnel, a network of massive storm sewers and cavernous flood-control reservoirs under construction since the mid 1970’s. The project won’t be completed until at least 2029, and the agency has already spent $3 Billion on it. I’m not sure if those are $3 Billion inflation adjusted dollars or not, but my guess would be they are not, which means in today’s dollar terms, that number is much higher, closer to $3.5 billion or $4 billion. The Chicago Tribune goes on to say, and I quote,
“Despite the work already accomplished, the system is not only incapable of handling bigger storms like the April  deluge, according to research conducted for city planners, but renders large swaths of Chicago vulnerable to downpours as minor as ⅔ of an inch.”
That is quite shocking! What this speaks to is bottlenecks in the system; somehow, as little as 0.67 inches of rain can create a water bottleneck somewhere, most likely because somewhere, too much water is converging into too few sewer pipes. It also speaks to a potential dramatic under estimation of future rainwater flows that was talked about in the above referenced article from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com. This Chicago Tribune article mentions a resident of the Dunning neighborhood in Chicago whose home has flooded 4 times in the past decade, between 2003 and 2013. She says, and I quote,
“…if we’re getting these once-a-century storms every two or three years, we need to do something different. Because what we’re doing now doesn’t seem to work.”
I looked up where the Dunning neighborhood is located in Chicago. You can see on the above map that Dunning is located literally on the edge of the O’Hare Airport complex. As a matter of fact, in terms of surface area, the O’Hare airport complex is about 3x the size of Dunning! The O’Hare Airport complex is a gigantic concrete and steel platform for airplanes and passengers, surrounded by more steel and concrete where a mesh of interstate and highway arteries converge. What does that mean? It means very little rain water gets soaked up in the ground at O’Hare; its almost all run-off, which means it runs off in the path of least resistance. Surely, there is a massive drainage system underground at O’Hare. O’Hare is an international hub for air traffic, and too much water on the runways would create costly congestion for business and travelers. It’s safe to assume that getting water out of O’Hare takes priority over getting water out of Dunning, or any other nearby neighborhood. This implies a sewer drainage hierarchy. Yes, there is a hierarchy, because water management is a service, and as a large taxpayer, O’hare most certainly has a priority QoS (Quality of Service) agreement with the sewer authority. When the rains really come down, getting the water out of O’Hare is priority number one, and this comes at the expense of the surrounding areas, like Dunning.
I wondered, given the earlier statistic regarding income of neighborhoods and town in Cook County affected by flooding, what the median income of Dunning is? The median household income in Dunning in 2015 was $59,737, versus $56,841 for Cook County as a whole. Dunning residents are actually slightly wealthier than their Cook County brethren. The 2015 Cook County Median Household income is an estimate from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis FRED database. The Dunning data is from MetroPulse; you can get a bunch of data from them here. Dunning residents are overwhelmingly immigrant Polish and Hispanic communities. The average household size is larger in immigrant communities than non-immigrant communities. This skews the household income to the upside, versus Cook County as a whole where households are smaller. If we were to look at per capita income, we might see different numbers. With that being said, the real issue is not so much who flooding effects, but why it affects them?
Alleys are a major reason for flooding in urban areas. Ex-Mayor Richard Daley, who presided over Chicago prior to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, instituted a program called Green Alleys before he retired. Chicago has 1900 miles (wow!) of alleys. The alleys are made of non-permeable surface. An, alley, surrounded on two sides with buildings, can become a swimming pool. The water sits. The Green Alleys program was to replace alleys with permeable, reflective surface, so that water could gradually filter into the ground, or into underground basins that would then soak slowly into the soil underneath. The reflective surface of Green Alleys would fight the urban heat island effect, which is a real issue.
<a href=”https://www.researchgate.net/Scheme-of-the-Heat-Island-Effect-profile-according-with-urban-morphology-the_fig3_317416236″><img src=”https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bashkim_Idrizi/publication/317416236/figure/fig3/AS:503124184006661@1496965561893/Scheme-of-the-Heat-Island-Effect-profile-according-with-urban-morphology-the.png” alt=”Scheme of the Heat Island Effect profile according with urban morphology; the temperatures shown refers to a late summer afternoon (EPA modified from Voogt, 2002)”/></a>
An amazing statistic from the EPA is that urban areas can be as much as 22 degrees warmer at night than rural areas. This is specifically caused by the heat island of urbanization. Bodies of water have a high heat capacity. What does that mean? It means they can absorb and contain heat. Its similar to how hot air holds more water (it’s more humid in the summertime). Hard surfaces, and synthetic materials in roof tiles, impervious concrete, brick, and asphalt, act as radiators of heat. Greenery, such as trees, shrubs, and grass, absorb water, which reduces runoff. Less runoff means less water that needs to be transported somewhere else via drainage systems. Less runoff also means more moisture for dry areas that need it, and more evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration is when vegetation, the natural earth as a whole, releases moisture into the air to cool the air temperature. Rooftops on high-rise buildings are sprouting urban gardens to help cool the hot air radiating from the building after a scorching hot summer day. The EPA published research on the efficacy of urban gardens, and it is promising. At epa.gov, paved surface statistics of four cities, including Chicago, show that 37% of Chicago is paved surface. That is a lot of space for run-off, heat storage, and heat radiation, and its a large reason why environmental warming and flooding is occurring. Any and all tools need to be used to fight it, including urban gardens.
According to this press release by the mayor’s office on April 24th, 2018, Chicago has repaved 2000 miles of roadway since 2011. Unfortunately, very few if any of those are being repaved with permeable material. That means those new surfaces will surely contribute to the heat island effect, and will do nothing to fight urban flooding and environmental warming. From the press release:
“To ensure the City is making the most efficient use of resources possible, it has improved coordination on infrastructure projects. Through CDOT’s Project Coordination Office, City infrastructure departments and utilities have worked together to reduce the amount of project conflicts that would require opening up a street more than once. These coordination efforts have led to a savings of $124 million since 2012.”
You can’t help but wonder how many tax dollars have gone to opening up streets more than once, paving and repaving, as a result of a lack of coordination between city departments, and between private utilities and public works. You also have to wonder how many missed opportunities there were in between tearing up and repaving to use environmentally friendly materials in repaving those roads.
A final quote on the Deep Tunnel project from the outgoing Executive Director of the MWRD (Metropolitan Water Reclamation District), David St. Pierre regarding its ability to handle rainwater in the age of global warming:
“It’s hard to handle that amount of water.” “Regardless of what (Deep Tunnel) is doing, it won’t necessarily mitigate basement backups. If we don’t get a cultural change about how we look at water, we aren’t going to solve this problem.”
St. Pierre has done great things for the MWRD in his tenure according to Chicago Magazine, but single handedly no one can fix the effect of climate change. That’s a national, if not global effort. It’s a cultural change that needs to be affected.