Watershed Alliance Achieves Major Milestone

North Branch of the Chicago River at LaBagh Woods.

Equity, health, biodiversity, connectivity, and resiliency were at the heart of a November 2022 meeting of the Greater Chicago Watershed Alliance (originally established as the Chicago-Calumet River Watershed Council) who met to review the in-depth results of the data gathering and refinement phase of the Natural Solutions Tool, a multi-benefit project prioritization tool designed to catalyze strategic green infrastructure projects. Friends launched the Watershed Alliance in 2020 to create a watershed-wide approach to using nature-based solutions to manage stormwater to the benefit of human and environmental health.

The data gathering process was a seven months’ long effort by the Natural Solutions Tool Technical Advisory Team composed of subject matter experts with a diversity of expertise including staff from Friends, the Chicago Departments of Public Health and Planning and Development, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, The Nature Conservancy, and The Wetlands Initiative, and others.

The goal was to work together to refine the geographic data that defines a set of Geographic Information System (GIS) modeling objectives for the Natural Solutions Tool so that we can understand our regional watershed study area in the context of goals for health, equity, resiliency, biodiversity and stormwater capture. Once that was completed, the focus areas were then “stacked” to create overall priorities about the areas where nature-based solutions (including parks, open space, and trails) can have multiple benefits for communities. The Technical Advisory Team ensured the tool utilizes best available data sources, addresses regional priorities, ground-truthed data, and weighted the results.

Multiple data sources meeting our criteria were compiled and reviewed. They include an array of indicators, statistics, and demographic information such as age, asthma rates, combined sewer areas, diabetes rates, diesel particulate matter, disinvested communities, educational attainment, heat islands, linguistic isolation, neighborhood flooding, percentage of impervious surfaces, protected natural areas, and trail connectivity.

The preliminary findings made it already apparent that the tool will be a useful resource to help us harness the power of nature to improve the resiliency of the watershed. We can already see how targeted investments in nature-based solutions, especially in communities along tributary streams, creeks, and canals can positively affect our watershed’s community and ecological health.

The next step is to attach the results to each parcel and then reformat the tool into a public facing website for anyone to access and use. A full public launch of the public tool will take place in March of 2023 at our annual Chicago River Summit event.