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Winnetka Stormwater Tunnel: What About The Other 99 Percent of Pollution?

Karen Hobbs

Posted March 12, 2014

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Confirmation bias is selectively using facts that support one’s position while ignoring the ones that don’t.  The Winnetka Home Owners Association (WHOA) is using confirmation bias to support its claims that stormwater does not contribute to beach closures in Winnetka.  Unfortunately, they’re cherry picking these facts from NRDC’s Testing the Waters report.

Testing the Waters does report that 1 percent of Illinois’ reported sources of beachwater contamination comes from stormwater. 

However, in the line directly above that statement, Testing the Waters also reports that 99% of beach closures come from unknown contamination sourcesTesting the Waters makes clear that stormwater is by far the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories across the country.

That finding is supported by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), which analyzed beach impairments in five communities, including Winnetka.  Its analysis found that stormwater likely has a large impact on Winnetka beach segments and that stormwater typically contains bacteria like Escherichia coli (E. Coli).  E. coli indicates that feces, potentially containing pathogens, are present in the water.  Exposure to E. coli bacteria, along with other viruses and parasites in contaminated beachwater, can cause a wide range of diseases, including ear, nose and eye infections, gastroenteritis and respiratory illnesses. 

That’s why IEPA is requiring these communities -- Winnetka, Evanston, Glencoe, Wilmette and Kenilworth --  to limit bacteria loadings to help make their beaches safe for swimming.

It’s also worth noting that one of the best management practices IEPA identifies, as does Testing the Waters, to help manage stormwater is the use of green infrastructure.  Green infrastructure helps stop runoff pollution by capturing rainwater and either storing it for use or letting it filter back into the ground, replenishing vegetation and groundwater supplies. Examples of green infrastructure include green roofs, street trees, increased green space, rain barrels, rain gardens, and permeable pavement.  Green infrastructure also helps reduce the risk of flooding – a major concern in Winnetka and hundreds of other communities – by literally capturing rainwater where it falls and allowing it to slowly percolate back into the ground or slowing its descent to the sewer system.

Strategies that capture rain are important since rain is often a contributing factor to beachwater pollution. Heavy rain can overwhelm sewage systems, forcing raw sewage directly into coastal waters, bypassing treatment plants. And as rainwater washes over land, it picks up pollutants and carries them directly to coastal waters. According to EPA, pollutants found in stormwater include trash, bacteria, motor oil, pet waste, pesticides, fertilizer, animal droppings, and anything else that washes off developed land when it rains.

The health of our communities – and our beaches – are too important to cherry pick facts to support a narrow position.

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Michael BerndtsonMar 13 2014 08:22 AM

This is such an interesting story. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I'll try not to be too snippy here, but what's the problem with Winnetka? If its not that bad deal made with Prairie State Coal or that unregulated muni owned peaker power plant, its a stormwater drainage system going directly to the beach.

Winnetka's no Berwyn, but not every suburb can be located next to Cicero, the Stickney Water Works, and acres and acres of cemeteries. Winnetka's value comes almost exclusively from its proximity to the lake. One of the most beautiful and essential to life natural resources on the planet. An increase of a couple hundred a year in taxes was too steep for its residents?

The tunnel of discussion isn't a 21st century stormwater management plan. It's at best a 19th century plan, based on zero modern day understanding of hydrology and environmental protection. It's a fitting plan for the energy of record, MWH Global, who puts the "big" in big water E&C. Maybe the Harza family (the H in MWH) lives in Winnetka.

Stormwater pollution is difficult to classify compared to point sources like a chemical plant outfall (or an unregulated muni peaker plant). However, given leaky automobile crank cases and lusciously ChicagoHotdogRelish green lawns, the small point and area sources add up.

Having rainwater containing the jetsam and flotsam of modern society flow into a big pipe and discharge directly into the lake doesn't seem like a well thought out solution in this day and age. Then again, the north shore suburbs are trying to reverse riparian rights to restrict lakefront access to only its residents. So it'll be the locals who swim from those beaches, not Berwyn families picnicking on a sunny summer Saturday. Then again and again, about 5 million of us Chicagolanders drink that water.

54 yrs in WinnetkaMar 14 2014 08:09 PM

When it comes to the media reports on the Village Trustee Candidates, they fail to note that none of the candidates has come out on record AGAINST the Stormwater referendum. The 13 March 2014 Winnetka Talk's comments indicate all five candidates are either committed to the tunnel project or seem to be in favor of it. Since the referendum is non-binding, there is no way to democratically vote against the Tunnel project.

I am in favor of protecting our environment and I am also in favor of protecting our pocketbooks, especially those who chose and/or built responsibly in the first place so rainwater would never be an issue to them. Flooding isn't a problem in our neighborhood. (Perhaps we should secede from the rest of Winnetka?)

Socialists will rig an election any way they can to may everyone pay for their mistakes. (I'm talking stormwater, not Obamacare.)

Peter MoneMar 19 2014 05:25 PM

Interesting that "54 Years in Winnetka" brands those who support floodwater control as " socialists" I have only lived in Winnetka for 38 years and have seen my neighbors affected by the flooding. I am not a socialist but a realist and would be pleased to debate the issues with this gentleman or lady.

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