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Illinois Infrastructure: Getting Our Water Systems Up to Snuff Amidst the Climate Crush

Henry Henderson

Posted May 9, 2014

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Permeable Pavement Reduces Stormwater Runoff

Water. In Illinois we have whipsawed back and forth between having too much of it and not enough in recent years. From a flooded and re-reversed Chicago River to the mighty Mississippi being reduced to levels so low it was unnavigable to the barges that carry grain and other bulk commodities, with a historic drought withering corn and soybean in between, the impact of climate change has been impossible to ignore.

Those messes have not been lost on leadership in the Statehouse. Quietly and without much fanfare, Illinois has been laying the groundwork for making the state’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems more resilient, more sustainable, and better prepared for the impacts of climate change. On the heels of this week’s federal climate assessment, there is some serious leadership coming out of Springfield on the issue right now:

  • Governor Pat Quinn announced in his State of the State address that he will secure an additional $1 billion as part of his Clean Water Initiative to support upgrading water systems across the state.
  • The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will undertake a major study of how much drinking water is lost from leaky old pipes, losing millions of gallons of treated drinking water and costing water utilities and their customers millions of dollars each year.
  • And just this week the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that, for the first time ever, makes green infrastructure, water efficiency, and other climate resiliency projects eligible to tap a multi-billion dollar state fund for water infrastructure investments. 

These kinds of projects had previously been supported with relatively small grants.  But now, thanks to the legislation passed this week, Illinois is going big by allowing these projects to access a dedicated multi-billion dollar revolving loan fund that the state established decades ago. The bill now goes to Governor Quinn for his signature. Given that the Quinn administration championed the legislation, it’s a certainty that it will become law.

The fund has issued more than $3 billion in low-interest loans since it was established in 1988. Last year, Governor Quinn added $1 billion to this fund through his Clean Water Initiative and he plans to put another $1 billion into the pot this year. 

With so much new funding available, it’s the right time for the state legislature and Governor Quinn to make green infrastructure and water efficiency projects eligible for funding through the Clean Water Initiative. Illinois’ cities and towns are dealing with an increasingly complex set of problems that will tax water infrastructure not designed to address the extremes wrought by climate change:  more frequent floods, more violent rainfall events that overwhelm storm sewers and longer periods of drought that will strain water supplies.

As outlined this week in the federal climate assessment report, climate change is no longer something that looms in the future. It is here. Plaguing Illinois now. And there are some important fixes needed now as scientists expect things to worsen:

  • More flooding on the way: In Illinois, 179 drinking water and sewage treatment plants are already located in flood prone areas. A recent analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency of climate change and the risk of flooding shows that Illinois counties can expect between a 40% and 90% increase in the size of areas susceptible to flooding by the end of the century.
  • More violent rainstorms will overwhelm aging stormwater systems: Statewide, the annual number of precipitation events greater than 3 inches has increased by 83 percent over the last 50 years, and the amount of total precipitation during these events has increased by 100 percent.  As the climate continues to warm, the number of days with rainfall greater than 1 inch is projected to increase up to 30 percent by mid-century, overwhelming stormwater systems and leading to more instances of localized flooding.
  • Hotter temperatures bring drought: While annual average precipitation is projected to increase slightly (2 to 8 percent) by mid-century, average precipitation during the summer is projected to decrease by up to 10 percent.  This would coincide with projected summer temperature increases of 5 to 6°F. Hotter temperatures combined with decreased precipitation could contribute to drier soils and more droughts. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the extreme heat seen in the 2012 drought is now four times more likely to happen than in the past because of climate change.

It’s critically important that we take these kinds of future impacts into account when we’re designing and building drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, since they have lifetimes measured in decades. Failing to factor in the impacts of climate change and the risk of future floods, storms and droughts could prove to be a costly mistake.

Making low-interest loans, loan guarantees, and other forms of financing available is essential to making green infrastructure and water efficiency part of communities’ water future. When funding is made available, it removes the biggest barrier to deploying these techniques and allows communities to scale up their efforts accordingly. 

NRDC has given the President’s Climate Preparedness and Resiliency Task Force a set of detailed recommendations on how to use revolving loan funds to make water infrastructure funds ready for climate change. Governor Quinn is a member of that Task Force. 

Other states should follow Illinois’ lead and the example that Governor Quinn has begun to establish. Across the nation, states have about $110 billion in capital available through similar water infrastructure funds, which are supported by annual federal and state appropriations. As climate impacts worsen, they are going to need to tap that cash. And if they are smart, they will follow Illinois’ lead with a focus on water efficiency and green infrastructure to get the job done smartly.


Permeable Pavers in Aurora, IL image courtesy of IEPA via Flickr.

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Michael BerndtsonMay 10 2014 10:50 AM

I'm confused. The Illinois Clean Water Initiative never once (from my quick look see) mentioned climate change preparedness. Your post mentions two things: Illinois Clean Water Initiative and Climate Change Preparedness. Those two things, while important, don't seem to dovetail, at all, in Illinois. I realize there is an upstate/downstate thing to consider when moving public build projects forward through Springfield. Man, this is beyond goofy. Like Illinois as quietly turned into tar sands pipeline junction over the past 6 years kind of goofy.

Sure there are hints of the ICWI, where words like "adaptation" are used in the language. Sort of like winks and nods to those concerned about that, implying "it'll be fine." I'm guessing that ICWI may have absolutely no requirement for future climate change preparedness, when it comes to planning, design, construction and operations, i.e. engineering. Engineering requires explicit criteria throughout the lifecycle of the thing being implemented. In other words the request for proposal basis of design stating: "a successful design will consider climate change scenarios."

At this point ICWI looks like business development for AECOM and other civil water/wastewater engineering firms. And maybe the Illinois Truck Lease Association (doesn't exist - referring to truck leasing deals to metro water reclamation facilities back in the 1990s).

Henry HendersonMay 11 2014 10:35 PM

Thanks for the comment. Adaptation to the realities of the emerging climate regime of intensified storms, flooding and drought requires changing our water infrastructure dramatically. Flooded basements, contaminated runoff, closed beaches, coupled with long stretches of no rainfall---too much and too little water---requires a change of infrastructure, water policy and funding mechanisms. Making appropriate changes is "climate preparedness"---with or without the title. This is what Illinois has done, without the title, this past week; and that is the focus of the blog.
Practical, realistic evolution of policy and preparation for effective programs to meet the changing realities, needs and opportunities of our changing climate regime.
Hope this is helpful.

Michael BerndtsonMay 12 2014 10:36 AM

It is helpful, but falls under cynicism most of us have of Illinois politics, which started around 1818 or so.

It seems like NRDC is trying to hide climate change preparedness requirement in subtlety of language. Kind of like how the New Albany fracking regulatory affairs went down. [Here's my prediction: for every one mole of hydrocarbon that gets burned to generate lower carbon electricity as a substitute for coal from southern Illinois shale, 10 moles of hydrocarbon will be piped up to Alberta to dilute bitumen. There's already a pipeline being reversed and modified expressly for that.]

Engineering and construction doesn't care too much of establishing climate change mitigation and preparedness. They design and build big things post need. And then design and build again upon different needs, due to some environmental or political event. Civil engineers are political creatures who prefer nomographs and precedence over extrapolation and predictive modeling. We're talking about a cautious bunch here, who get about 80 percent of their work from public policy. And they appreciate the prospective work backlog climate change may bring.

I'm referencing the AECOM's report you referenced in the post. It kind of freaks me out that NRDC's board chairman is Daniel Tishman, formerly of Tishman E&C and now AECOM. The worlds largest consulting, engineering and construction firm of infrastructure, i.e. seawalls and water/wastewater systems. Even civil engineers are calling themselves libertarians now days. Either to straddle the divide or to drum up public/private infrastructure work.

My point is this: without policy that defines climate change preparedness, will just build it. It'll get knocked down or become useless. And build it again. Like Illinois highway surfacing.

Robert MooreMay 12 2014 10:39 AM

Henry is exactly right, that the actions this legislation will support are essential to making Illinois' water infrastructure better prepared for the challenges posed by the impacts of climate change.

It is also worth pointing out that the legislation does acknowledge the need for making our water infrastructure more resilient. In the legislative findings section of the bill it states that, "in planning projects for which financing will be sought...municipalities may benefit from efforts to consider...the resilience of the project to the effects of climate change." (Sec 19.1(i))

The main point of this legislation is to make stormwater, green infrastructure, water efficiency and other projects eligible for funding under the Governor's Clean Water Initiative and the state's revolving loan fund. This is critical if water utilities are to make their operations more resilient to the increased risk of floods and droughts brought upon by climate change.

Josh MogermanMay 12 2014 10:48 AM

Michael, as always many thanks to reading and commenting. But, says climate in the title of the not sure how NRDC is "hiding" it in communication...

Moreover, climate is a massive problem that requires action on numerous fronts. We are prepared to go full-force in helping get power plant carbon standards in place this summer I am not sure I get the concern about using smart green infrastructure and water efficiency projects out there to deal with the climate impacts already vexing Illinoisans. Yeah, its Illinois, we need to be watchful...but this is good news.

Michael BerndtsonMay 12 2014 12:52 PM

Thanks Robert and Josh. Josh, are you honestly thankful for my comments? Like really really thankful? In all honesty, more people should be reading and commenting on Switchboard. This may mean more work for you guys - however, the forum and content is excellent. And I really really mean that. Honestly.

The issue isn't this blog posts. My first comment addressed that. There are two discussions that didn't seem to dovetail: one is that which should be considered (as mentioned in the bullet points by NRDC) and that which is actually policy. "Mays" and "hopes" don't set bid requirements, unless an engineer or contractor want to be the losing high bid, offering a plan that actually addresses a probably future environmental/climate condition. Infrastructure project awards tend to weigh capital costs over life-cycle due to short political cycles.

for example, section 19.1(i) mentioned by Robert above:

"in planning projects for which financing will be sought...municipalities may benefit from efforts to consider...the resilience of the project to the effects of climate change."

That leaves the door open to cosmetic climate change preparedness. Not the billions needed to keep Chicagoland from going back to pre I&M and Sanitary and Ship canals swampland.

More importantly, Illinois has not updated a climate preparedness plan, as discussed in Switchboard previously. I believe we as a state are more prepared to stop an invasion by Wisconsin cheeseheads, than for whatever impacts climate change acceleration may cause.

Policy is important (as you guys know). What goes into the regs becomes the basis of design to address what needs to be done. Especially for civil infrastructure - assuming it's paid for by taxation or tolls. And Jiminy Crickets, if an environmental policy group can't move Illinois, a fairly blue state, towards environmental protection and preparedness, what hope is there for the rest of the country? I'm not talking about DLC style sloganeering and behind the scenes dealings.

Robert MooreMay 12 2014 03:51 PM

The point of the legislation was not to establish prescriptive standards or requirements for climate preparedness.

The legislation makes stormwater, green infrastructure, and water efficiency projects eligible for financing through the state's revolving loan fund (a.k.a. the Governor's Clean Water Initiative, a.k.a. the Illinois Water Pollution Control Loan Program, a.k.a. the Clean Water State Revolving Fund) for the first time ever.

The legislation also recognizes that water utilities may benefit from factoring future climate impacts into their project designs and considering how resilient those designs will be to future conditions.

These are significant steps forward in Illinois and something that many (if not most) states currently fail to consider or support.

Let's consider a hypothetical city that recognizes the future challenges it faces rom urban flooding. It wants to deploy green infrastructure techniques to decrease the amount of stormwater it has to deal with. In the past, the city might have been able to get a few hundred thousand dollars in state assistance through a small grants program. But financing millions or more for that kind of project was only available from private lenders, at higher interest rates.

Now, thanks to the legislation recently passed, that city could get low-interest loans from the state to build green infrastructure on a much bigger scale and in a shorter time frame -- an option previously unavailable to them.

I appreciate your perspective that Illinois and the nation need to go much further much faster. NRDC will continue to look for additional solutions that help meet the scale of the challenges we face. But as first steps go, this is a significant one.

Michael BerndtsonMay 12 2014 04:40 PM

Robert, nicely said and I'll start to panic less. I'm typically thinking of Chicagoland and what it may cost to simply keep asian carp out of Lake Michigan, let alone balance the water level to keep a water supply intake muck free. A water level completely controlled by three man made diversions and an ever increasing evaporation rate, which is dependent on climate change acceleration. Of course those in Mclean and Sangamon counties have their little problems to complain about. And expect low interest bonds to fix them. Is there even indoor plumbing down there?

I took the rug out of my basement so I'm not too worried about perennial flooding. Yet.

Josh MogermanMay 12 2014 04:42 PM

And yes Michael, I am thankful for your comments!

Comments are closed for this post.


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