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Green Infrastructure, the MWRDGC, and You

July 11, 2018

Extreme weather patterns such as heat waves, heavy downpours, droughts, and floods are increasing due to record high average temperatures. Since record-keeping began 123 years ago, the five hottest years on record in the country have been in the last decade. 


Humans must figure out how to adapt. One method is to invest in green infrastructure.


What is green infrastructure? 


The term "green infrastructure" was "first coined in Florida in 1994 in a report to the governor on land conservation strategies and was intended to reflect the notion that natural systems are equally, if not more important, components of our 'infrastructure,'" according to Karen Firehock


According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "Green infrastructure is a cost-effective, resilient approach to managing wet weather impacts that provides many community benefits. While single-purpose gray stormwater infrastructure—conventional piped drainage and water treatment systems—is designed to move urban stormwater away from the built environment, green infrastructure reduces and treats stormwater at its source while delivering environmental, social, and economic benefits." In other words, green infrastructure is the holistic way of design. 


Scientists and other environmental experts have suggested that implementing green infrastructure will help humans adapt to extreme weather patterns. Some examples of green infrastructure include: Downspout Disconnection, Rainwater Harvesting, Rain Gardens, Planter Boxes, Bioswales, Permeable Pavements, Green Streets and Alleys, Green Parking, Green Roofs, Urban Tree Canopy, and Land Conservation. See more about each of these here




How is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) investing in green infrastructure? 


As you now know, green infrastructure is an excellent way to adapt to extreme weather patterns. Because green infrastructure focuses so much around water management, this planning approach is especially important to the MWRD, the agency that handles Chicago's storm water, sewage, and river health. 


The MWRD has been using green infrastructure methods since 2003, when they began their native prairie landscape initiative. MWRD native prairie projects can be seen at the Lemont Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) and North Side WRP. In 2008, pervious projects have been explored and implemented, like converting the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant's parking lot from concrete to pervious pavers. In addition, the MWRD partnered with the Chicago Department of Transportation in the Pilsen neighborhood green street project in April of 2011, where up to 80% of the typical average annual rainfall from the combined sewer through a combination of bioswales, rain gardens, permeable pavements, and stormwater features is diverted. One of the most notable green infrastructure projects is called Space to Grow, implemented at Chicago Public School schoolyards. Each schoolyard receives a $1.5 million transformation with special surfaces and design elements—such as rain gardens and permeable pavers—to capture rainwater and help reduce neighborhood flooding during the heaviest of storms. Each project is tailored to that community so that the entire community benefits from it. In a detailed piece, Allison Fore, MWRD's Public & Intergovernmental Affairs Officer wrote, "The Space to Grow partners’ current commitments will transform 34 schoolyards in Chicago. In total, those schoolyards will be able to capture and hold over 5 millions gallons of stormwater at any given time."


According to Commissioner Frank Avila, green infrastructure is a mindset. "Green infrastructure (GI) is a community wide initiative, so part of our program is directed at encouraging communities to think 'GI.' This effort is directed at accomplishing a cultural shift in how we think about water management as a society. Because most projects are developed on land that is not owned by the District, partnerships play a key role in implementation. The MWRD asks for GI submittals from the 125 communities served annually. The first year we received 3 submittals; this year we received 47. The culture is changing within communities in Cook County due to MWRD funding options, educational outreach, and promotion. GI becomes effective at a very large scale – property by property. The most effective change has occurred in new development because of the implementation of our Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO). This ordinance requires the first inch of rain to be captured using GI on new property development. This volume combined with projects the District has implemented reached 20,604,299 gallons of capture per event through GI implementation in 2017. There is an additional 22 million gallons of capture per event on the books." 


While green infrastructure is the future, not every project is designed through a green infrastructure lens. Commissioner Avila explains why: "In some locations, GI adds little value. The Chicago region has many areas where significant volumes of water need to be managed and GI cannot effectively take care of these chronic flooding issues. An example includes the Albany Park area and the chronic flooding along Addison and Salt Creek. Most everyone agrees that it is not a question of gray or green but a blend of gray and green that will produce resilient communities."


Click here for a map of MWRDGC projects.



Implementing green infrastructure at home


Green infrastructure isn't only in the hands of the big players, like the MWRD, however! You have the power to implement green infrastructure on your own property. The underlying benefits of at-home green infrastructure planning are flood reduction and saving money. Here is a list of ways you can implement green infrastructure at home. 


  1. Harvest rainwater! Rainwater harvesting is the collection of rainwater, typically from gutters and downspouts, and the storage that rainwater in large, durable containers. Harvested rainwater can be used to water plants when necessary. 

  2. Build a green roof and/or rain garden. A green roof is a vegetative layer grown on a roof that holds rain water and reduces roof temperature. Green roofs can be ornamental and low profile or used for intensive vegetable growing. A rain garden is a garden of native shrubs, perennials, and grasses which can withstand both drought and occasional flooding, generally planted on a low point of a natural slope.

  3. Choose permeable pavement. Permeable pavement is designed to allow percolation or infiltration of stormwater through the surface into the soil below where the storm water is naturally filtered and pollutants are removed. 

  4. Build bioswales. Bioswales are ditches filled with vegetation and compost and are designed to concentrate or remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff water.

  5. Conserve land. Consider supporting land conservation rather than development of strip malls or other concrete structures that will threat flooding.

  6. Plant native plants! Native plants to the Chicagoland area, like Indian Grass, Switch Grass, Purple Coneflower, and Wild Bergamot have benefits. These include: increased water infiltration due to extensive root system that contributes to stormwater runoff mitigation, increased biodiversity and habitat for wildlife, and sequestered atmospheric CO2. 

  7. Plant a tree! The MWRD distributes free trees every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon at the following water reclamation plants: 




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