Think Green, Not Gray

Recent rain in Chicagoland has pelted residents with an important reality once again: our collective action to mitigate pressure on sewer pipes overwhelmed with water is not just necessary, it is urgent.

The July 2-3 storms flooded homes across Chicago and nearby suburbs, with some residents reporting multiple feet of water in basements and other areas. The limits of the region’s extant water infrastructure has many residents frustrated, demanding answers from area officials about why current diversion and retention methods aren’t enough to curb destructive flooding.  The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) designed the massive Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP/Deep Tunnel) system to capture and control stormwater and mitigate flooding. However, the accelerating effects of climate change, including increasing extreme weather events such as this month’s storms, demand greatly expanding alternative methods for managing water.

In an episode of WBEZ’s Reset following the storms, Friends’ Executive Director Margaret Frisbie explains why Friends, along with the MWRD and the 18 other partners of the Greater Chicago Watershed Alliance, is urging government agencies, community groups, and elected officials to consider wide-scale natural solutions to offset dire climatological problems.

“We will have a bigger impact if we think systemically,” Frisbie explains in her one-on-one interview with WBEZ’s Sasha-Ann Simons this week. Spearheading the Greater Chicago Watershed Alliance, Friends and Watershed Alliance members, are pushing for substantial shifts in watershed governance and infrastructural development and maintenance.

The use of nature-based green infrastructure leverages the inherent intelligence and resiliency of nature to develop future-focused strategies for just and sustainable living. Developing tactics for educating local leaders, planning and policy experts, and the public, the Watershed Alliance urges that we think with nature, rather than against it.

Natural solutions represent a critical next step in our thinking, planning, and collective organizing. The Watershed Alliance has already experienced much success in its efforts. The recently launched Natural Solutions Tool continues to provide users the ability to explore overlapping environmental and community impacts affecting Chicago area watersheds. Over 500 local leaders, educators, and planning experts will be trained to use the tool by the end of the summer. The restoration of Indian Ridge Marsh-South, a project of Friends, the Watershed Alliance, and the Chicago Park District in the Calumet region on the Southeast Side, is now not only a beautiful, natural space for area residents, but also serves as critical infrastructure for rainwater retention. “We need to think green, not gray,” Frisbie notes, “green infrastructure improves environmental health, quality of life, and it also builds resiliency and biodiversity.”

Not only are existing “gray” infrastructures crumbling under accelerating use and minimal maintenance, but also renovating gray infrastructure does not solve all our problems. Urbanization has left much of Chicagoland, like many cities across the United States, shorn of permeable surfaces. Without permeable surfaces, heavy rain inundates pipes, streets, and basements. This week alone Friends and the MWRD issued multiple Overflow Action Alerts while people across the region anxiously watched weather reports (bailing buckets on the ready).

Friends created Overflow Action Days (#OverflowActionDays) in 2014 to mobilize citizens to reduce water consumption before, during, and after heavy rains. By delaying laundry, shortening showers, and flushing only when necessary, people across the watershed can keep gallons and gallons of water from overwhelming sewer pipes that, during heavy rains, are already working overtime to contain and transport water.

Signing up for Overflow Action Alerts, reducing water use on rainy days, and supporting the work of Friends are all important steps in overcoming the environmental justice challenges of the present.

But for the future to be brighter, we must be too; thinking green (not gray) is a model that Friends and the Watershed Alliance hopes will lead to increased public buy-in. Describing the cooperative efforts of organizations comprising the Watershed Alliance, Frisbie notes, “we function together.” As we all recover from flood damage and brace ourselves for more summer storms, now more than ever it is important for all of us to, indeed, function together.