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Despite a new $1 billion flood-control reservoir more than 20 times bigger than Soldier Field, rain and melting snow swamped the largest section of the Deep Tunnel project in less than a day last month, according to records obtained by the Tribune.
Starting on Feb. 20, more than 2 inches of rain flushed a torrent of sewage mixed with runoff from rooftops, streets and parking lots into stormwater tunnels stretching from Wilmette to Westchester, rapidly filling the McCook Reservoir built to hold wastewater until it can be treated.
After the 5.1 billion-gallon system swelled to capacity, leftovers from the storm surge began backing up in basements and pouring out of overflow pipes into the Chicago River and other area streams during the next two days.
Nearly 4 billion gallons of raw sewage, debris and runoff gushed into the waterways, most of it from a pair of pumping stations that convey waste from homes and factories on the North and South sides to the district’s treatment plants, according to a summary compiled by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District at the Tribune’s request.
Another government agency, the Chicago Department of Water Management, fielded 510 reports of basement flooding during and after the storm, and recorded 240 cases of standing water on city streets.
Officials at the water reclamation district said the Deep Tunnel worked as planned. By diverting 3.5 billion gallons into the McCook Reservoir and holding another 1.6 billion gallons in the stormwater tunnels, the system limited flooding and other damage in Chicago and suburban Cook County, said David St. Pierre, the district’s executive director.
Yet the February storm also highlighted the shortcomings of a system billed as an engineering marvel and model for flood-prone communities throughout the nation.
Frank Pajak, director of the Central Stickney Sanitary District in the southwest suburb, said his constituents were repeatedly assured that one of the nation’s most expensive public works projects would solve their chronic flooding problems.
“I’ve been hearing about Deep Tunnel forever,” said Pajak, who posted a complaint on the district’s Facebook page about the system’s performance during the storm. “I was at the ribbon-cutting (for the reservoir), and it looked great. So why am I still getting calls about people standing in ankle-deep sewage in their basement?”
While the reservoir will be able to hold 10 billion gallons after a nearby quarry is mined out by 2029, officials at the water reclamation district were alarmed by the rate of sewage and runoff rushing into the section that opened in December. If the storm had dumped a little more rain on the area, St. Pierre acknowledged, even the larger reservoir would have been filled within a day.
But without the reservoir, St. Pierre said, the district likely would have been forced to release sewage and runoff into Lake Michigan — the outlet of last resort when streets and basements are flooded.
“Before McCook came online, we would start seeing (sewage overflows) almost as soon as it started raining,” St. Pierre said. “This time the system held on for 20 hours, which makes me fairly optimistic that what we saw last month will be relatively rare.”
With the bulk of the project completed, even some of the project’s most ardent backers say the city and county need to start focusing more intensely on neighborhood-focused improvements that allow runoff to soak into the ground before it reaches local sewers.
Yet state legislative leaders in Springfield have blocked measures that would authorize the water reclamation district to spend taxpayer funds on the smaller-scale initiatives, which can help prevent sewage from backing up into basements and take pressure off the larger system of sewers and stormwater tunnels.
Meanwhile, staff turnover at the city has slowed progress on a pilot project in the low-lying Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, where the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology has drafted plans to direct downspouts away from homes, seal foundation cracks and install rain gardens and other landscaping improvements to absorb runoff.
“They are good at what they do,” Scott Bernstein, the center’s co-founder, said of the Deep Tunnel’s operators. “But we are seeing more intense storms like what happened in February, and it’s clear we still aren’t ready to deal with all of that rain.”
St. Pierre agrees. “We are not going to be able to solve this with pipes alone,” he said. “Once again, this storm shows why you shouldn’t build a large city in a swamp.”
The problem starts with sewers in Chicago and older suburbs that combine runoff with waste from homes and factories. When it rains, the combined sewers quickly fill up and begin spilling the waste through dozens of overflow pipes into local streams.
A Tribune analysis last year found that sewage and runoff flowed into the Chicago River and connected waterways about once every six days during 2016, and even more frequently during the May-to-October recreation season.
Lake Michigan has been hit more frequently since 2008 than it was during the previous quarter-century, district records show.
The Deep Tunnel is supposed to sharply reduce, if not completely eliminate, those problems. Technically known as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the project has been in the works since the mid-1970s and became the metropolitan area’s official response to the federal Clean Water Act.
Two separate, smaller sections of the project, serving the Calumet region and communities near O'Hare International Airport, have essentially put an end to raw sewage and runoff pouring into local waterways during and after rainstorms. But there are lingering questions about whether the larger system can handle quick, powerful storms hitting the region more frequently as the climate changes.
The Calumet and O’Hare systems collect runoff from 102 square miles combined. By contrast, the McCook Reservoir's service area is more than double that amount: 252 square miles, stretching from Wilmette south and west across a vast swath of Chicago and including western suburbs along the Des Plaines River.
Hawthorne, M. (2018) Chicago Tribune
With the continued frigid temperatures, frost lines may have gone deeper into the ground than usual. As a result, water service pipes that would not normally be at risk for freezing can be vulnerable and residents are advised to keep a very small amount of water running through their water service at all times during the severe weather. This is particularly important for water pipes on exterior walls, but with this season's prolonged cold, it is advised even for properties that do not have water pipes on exterior walls. Additionally, keep cabinet doors that have piping inside open to allow for air circulation. These tips are especially essential if your home has previously experienced frozen pipes.
If a pipe does freeze or burst in your home please don't try to fix the issue yourself unless you have experience with these extreme weather situations. Call our office right a way to schedule a service call.
Here are some tips to keep your outside pipes from freezing:
Carefully check your irrigation system and turn off or adjust run times and spray patterns to avoid creating over spray that could create dangerous ice.
Caulk around pipes where they enter the house and make sure to close all foundation vents. Open vents are the biggest cause for frozen or split water pipes. Once the Spring comes remember to open foundation vents to prevent dry outs.
Disconnect hoses from outside faucets. This prevents water being trapped in them and avoids the possibility of the water freezing.
Familiarize yourself and anyone living in the home with the main water shut off valve. The valve is usually located about 18" from the foundation located where the water line enters the home.
Protect outside pipe and faucets from freezing temps. For most newer homes, most hose bibs are frost free, meaning the shut off valve is deep inside an insulated wall to prevent freezing. If you are not sure if your hose bib is frost free you should wrap the bib with rags covered in plastic or molded foam insulated covers to wrap the faucets. You can pick up molded foam covers at most plumbing or hardware retail stores.
Shut off and drain in-ground sprinkler systems, including the Back Flow Prevention device installed on your irrigation system. Some systems require a blow out with a large compressor. If your system needs to be blown out it should be done by a professional, we can help with that!
As temperatures rise, so does the potential for heavy rains. Here are a list of the headlines used by the National Weather Service and their meaning.
Mark your calendars for the EPA's 9th annual Fix a Leak week which takes place March 20-26, 2017.
Did you know, more than 1 trillion gallons of water nationwide are wasted annually from household leaks?
Visit the EPA's website for a list of events happening in your area to educate yourself on how to save money by fixing leaks.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, your Flood Control System is another year older!!!
Our Clean & Check department officially reopens March 20th, 2017.
Look out for your reminder post card in the mail to take advantage of the coupon attached and don't forget to call in and schedule your annual maintenance check. 847-676-1931.
We can also check any Sump Pumps, Yard Drainage systems, and Battery Back-ups.
Please read below for some tips of what to do and what not to do during a flood event or a torrential downpour.
We have received word that the Village of Niles is almost out of funding to assist homeowners with the installation of systems to prevent sewage back ups in basements. If you are holding off on scheduling your FREE FLOOD CONTROL estimate, we strongly encourage you to call today to schedule and take advantage of any funds that are left. 847-676-1931