2020 Chicago River Summit

Speakers left to right: Mollie Dowling, Kevin Shafer, Palencia Mobley, and Mary Pat McGuire.

Over the course of three days in November 2020  leaders and experts from across the Midwest met virtually for the 2020 Chicago River Summit titled, “Soaking it in: A Regional Vision for Nature-Based Green infrastructure.” Experts shared their green infrastructure successes and delved into how to create more resilient cities using nature-based stormwater management approaches to reduce impacts on their communities and natural resources. Nature-based solutions are an environmentally impactful approach to stormwater management that can be used to supplement or even supplant gray infrastructure and offer numerous additional benefits.

Watch the River Summit on YouTube

The central theme to emerge from the Summit was that nature-based stormwater management is essential in the 21st century and to be effective we need to think regionally, think big, think creatively, and act now. And we need to think strategically beyond combined sewer overflows and about the value of all water quality instead. Are we managing sewerage systems or managing water where it falls? The impervious surfaces of cities should be thought about as headwaters to retrofit with green-blue technologies; and green-infrastructure maintenance solutions, with equitable workforce development opportunities, are essential to support communities. It requires watershed thinking in a sewer shed context.

Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, opened the program, stressing the over-arching importance of water quality to shape stormwater management strategy. “We started to change the discussion in 2008 to say that water quality is the most important thing; making sure that drinking water is clean and that our waterways are open for recreations,” said Shafer.

Huge opportunities for blue-green infrastructure lay ahead for cities said Mary Pat McGuire, landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. “The surface of a highly-engineered city is effectively a headwater of the system where upwards of 80% of the land surfaces are impervious in some way,” she said. “Thirty percent of the land surface in the South Side of Chicago is asphalt alone. This is a huge opportunity for redesign, for retrofitting cities; to re-think the surface of a city as a headwater. Green-blue adaptations can be the game-changer and it requires institutional leadership to do it.” 

For green infrastructure (GI) maintenance and workforce development, regional and local coordination among NGO’s, philanthropic organizations, and communities is essential to build sustainable, long-term GI partnerships. To protect community assets, reduce costs for municipalities and to provide equitable workforce development opportunities “[we need] large-scale solutions that include the sharing of services to maintain GI,” said Mollie Dowling, executive director of OAI, Inc. Beyond capital spending for green infrastructure, listening to and communicating with community-based groups such as block clubs is essential said Palencia Mobley, deputy director & chief engineer of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. “I like to say ‘wet weather treatment’ because everyone doesn’t know what a combined sewer overflow is but if I say ‘wet weather’ you think about rain and you’ll think about snow, and if I say ‘treatment’ you know I’m doing something to it.”

Friends presented the 2020 launch of the Chicago River Watershed Council, a 14 partner collaboration working to imitate a nature-based stormwater model in the Chicago/Calumet river watershed. The Summit made clear this work is the work for today and the work of the future. The archaic good water bad water mentality needs to end and all water treasured.

Thank you to our 2020 Chicago River Summit sponsors: Perkins and Will, Antero Group, Ecoturf Midwest Inc., Hey and Associates, Inc., and SWCA.