RainReady and the Changing Economics of Flood Prevention in Today's Cities

In cities across the United States today, infrastructure professionals find themselves at “ground zero,” contending with swelling urban populations that strain aging systems (energy, water, transportation & built environment). Even in Chicago, where the city’s overall population has been shrinking, concentrations of growth in the downtown area continue to expand. The South Loop population more than doubled in the last decade and the city center has taken on more than 40K new residents in the last 5 years. Across the country, census numbers reveal Americans are flocking to downtown environments, drawn to proximity of jobs, professional ecosystems and pedestrian-friendly lifestyles.

The growing preference for city life means that civic leaders are increasingly focused on ensuring urban environments are livable and healthy for people, and that our investments in maintaining and developing needed infrastructure keep pace with growing demands. In many ways, old cities like Chicago are trying to anticipate and develop future-forward solutions, many of them involving “smart technologies,” while at the same time, they are living with the consequences of past infrastructure decisions.

In water, one of the most significant past infrastructure decisions that impacts urban flooding today was the one made in Chicago and most other cities to create combined sewers back in 1856.  The idea was that one underground system would combine both wastewater and storm water, moving those away from people and toward treatment plants. While the goal of the sewer system, and most industrial creations like it, was to gain efficiencies by creating one large receptacle for water, one unintended consequence is that when there is too much storm water, the combined sewer systems overflow and release untreated waste and storm water into the Chicago River. Removing toxic sewage this way to get clean water again is very energy intensive as well, which strains another aged city system. Finally, homeowners will also experience the excess storm and waste water as flooding in their basements.

Living with Water Infrastructure Choices

It’s hard to imagine that after the combined sewer systems were built it took decades to realize that increasing the absorption rate of the green environment in a city could help alleviate the strain on the system and the likely occurrence of flooding.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Dept. of Agriculture even came up with standard measures for permeability of soils, and the analysis hasn’t changed much since that time. Scott Bernstein, CNT’s Founder and Chief Strategy & Information Officer notes, “it seems that common sense just took several decades to catch up to the hard sense of industrialization, and even today it is not that well applied.” 

Indeed, CNT’s RainReady program is at the forefront of a growing effort today in cities to augment the built water infrastructure with green infrastructure in communities and on private property, to reduce burdens on the system by “catching raindrops where they fall.”  Most of the reason for this is economic; cities like Chicago are already investing about $50M a year to maintain existing water lines and systems; they simply can’t afford to build new tunnels and reservoirs to keep up with flooding. The other reason is, cities can’t build these systems fast enough.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points out that Chicago’s Deep Tunnel project that began in 1998 will finally be completed in 2029. When complete, the $3.5B system will be able to handle 17 billion gallons of water. While massive, unfortunately, this may not be enough. After recording 56 years of major precipitation increases across the country, new climate change models are predicting this will only continue to happen, with some estimates indicating heavy storms will increase 50% by 2039, and 160% by the end of the century. 

In order to keep pace with increased rainfall and mitigate the time and expense of developing gray infrastructure, green solutions are increasingly regarded as an essential part of the overall urban water system. For economic reasons, cities are exploring opportunities to commingle green solutions with urban tech solutions like sensors to detect rising water levels and activate pumps or to allow gray infrastructure to capture and release water at optimum times before and after storms.

Green Infrastructure Creates New Platform for Community Engagement

The focus on solving flooding issues in more economical ways has also generated increased focus on flooding itself and where it is most concentrated. CNT has conducted its own studies of flood concentrations, leveraging public and private insurance claims data to help prove that urban flooding occurs in every zip code of Cook County – including those with no designated floodplains. Our research and work in this area was essential to getting the Urban Flooding Awareness Act of 2015 passed in Illinois, which further demonstrated the scope of urban flooding. According to their research, 92% of flooding occurs outside of designated floodplains. In 2016, we advocated for a clause in a U.S. Congress Appropriations Bill, requiring FEMA to conduct a study of urban flooding and solutions.

The realization that flooding and resulting damage is taking place in compressed areas within city boundaries and not simply along coastal fronts has been eye-opening for FEMA, and other government agencies, not to mention insurers eager to reduce liabilities associated with flooding. CNT is interested in deepening the focus on where flooding is most prevalent, and has been working with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) most recently to seek greater access to data on flood claims that will help with targeting prevention efforts nationwide.

To date, CNT’s RainReady Program has been focused on preventing flooding and rectifying flood damages in some of Chicago’s most economically challenged communities. Our team takes a community organizing and design approach to developing needed solutions. Molly Oshun, Director of Strategy & Innovation for RainReady, notes, “Since traditional funding models for urban flooding don’t really exist today, solutions require public buy-in. If you want to tackle storm water issues, you will quickly find yourself on private property, and that also requires engagement in order to make things happen.” 

After successfully navigating these barriers to retrofit 31 homes on Chicago’s south and west sides and to create and spur community green infrastructure solutions in places like Midlothian, RainReady has engaged with a number of organizations over the last year to create 6 plans for communities along the Calumet Corridor.  The team plans to celebrate the plans’ release on March 22 at a public event with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board President Mariyana Spyropoulos, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Christopher Drew.  The event is free, but seating is limited. RSVP here.

While rolling up sleeves with community and other partners to create 6 thoughtful plans is a major accomplishment, it has not occurred without challenges.  As Scott Bernstein points out, “Dealing with private property, or the intersection of invisible lines between civil and municipal property where the MWRD takes over, is challenging and prevents sensible efforts from taking place.” Bernstein notes that it was illegal to disconnect your downspout for many years, for instance, and an old city ordinance still prevents these solutions from being taken. Still, the improvements that RainReady has made so far are subject to continual evaluation and seem to be holding up.  Of the 31 homes that were retrofitted in recent years, none have experienced basement backup since the upgrades took place. Two of them have experienced some wall seepage, which will be corrected moving forward. RainReady is also working with a variety of partners to design and implement research efforts to measure the implementation of green infrastructure, as well as integration of technology that can also lend itself to enhanced protection.

In spite of the successful track record, RainReady has faced challenges from communities who are struggling with a myriad of social issues, in addition to flooding. At times, our team has found it can be difficult locating people to galvanize communities on flooding when other concerns like joblessness and crime are overwhelming people and creating competition on issues to organize around. Government officials are not always eager to engage on flooding issues either.  Unless there is sufficient confidence that a problem like flooding can actually be solved, some local officials back away from efforts like the ones RainReady has been advocating, concerned that a lack of data and evidence may put them further on the hook with residents if the actions taken ultimately don’t produce tangible results.

Finally, there are some communications and even cultural adaptations required for green infrastructure retrofits to be effective.  Depending on the types of plants and solutions selected, some green infrastructure solutions can appear messy, and also attract bees and other wildlife that can create a perceived nuisance for city dwellers. Mollie Dowling, Executive Director of OAI, Inc. and a RainReady partner also notes that there is often a “conundrum of maintenance” associated with green infrastructure retrofits.  “A lot of the funding for this work is for a one-year term and then nobody has the funding or capacity after it’s built to do maintenance on the green solutions so that they operate effectively,” she says. Trying to raise funding to educate communities on maintenance and ensure that it takes place community-by-community is also a major time-sink, which is causing RainReady, OAI and others to think more about regional solutions to this growing need for resources to support this work.

Why Put in More Effort Into Green Infrastructure Solutions?

The challenges in front of groups like CNT and others often seem herculean in nature, to not only clarify where flooding is happening, but also to anticipate amounts of flooding and then design green and economic solutions to relieve the stress on more costly, grey systems.  That said, research-driven innovation efforts that assume a hands-on approach are always the most difficult to get off the ground, but often end up being the ones that are “game-changing” in the end, because they bring others along in the journey of defining and solving problems.

RainReady can’t do this work alone; rather, it takes thoughtful organizing principles and outreach to the entire water ecosystem (both public and private actors) to get people to develop and implement flooding solutions together that keep people in their homes and also keep communities alive over the years.  RainReady has found that, to gain buy-in, it’s important to ensure the messengers recruiting people in the communities to work on flooding issues identify with the community itself. They also find that flood prevention work is something communities can find manageable, as opposed to tackling a more diffuse and widespread issue like crime, and can thus be a gateway for people to do more community organizing. In a way, flooding can be low-hanging fruit for people to start getting involved with their neighbors and talking about shared problems. Once they find that they can create and implement a plan to reduce flooding, they begin to tackle even bigger issues in the community.

Our team has also been focused on all of the economic benefits associated with this work, because these are the tangible benefits that cause people to take an interest and invest time and resources into solving problems. Opportunities to salvage existing infrastructure (avoiding costly tear-downs and re-building efforts), eliminate health concerns caused by toxic waste and mold/mildew and design positive outdoor spaces for healthy recreation activities, and create new green infrastructure jobs of all kinds, do garner attention. On jobs, once again, the data is promising. Nearly all related job categories, from landscape design and related services to plumbing, are growing sectors in the United States today, with landscape services growing at nearly 5% a year and providing above-average wages ($80K on average) according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We anticipate new kinds of jobs associated with this work to be created in the future. For instance, community organizers, urban planners, communications specialists, technology-developers and integrators, green infrastructure standards developers, etc. will all be needed to support new, distributed and integrated approaches to water infrastructure across the nation and beyond if we are to intelligently repair and augment our systems for future growth.

Lately, CNT has been thinking deeper about scaling the community solutions that it has developed in recent years.  We see a lot of potential for working with insurers and other financial services providers in the future to better identify areas of flooding concern, create standards and best practices for retrofitting homes and communities to avoid flooding, and to better craft insurance policies that protect people but also create new incentives for investments in increasingly sophisticated green-tech solutions for water infrastructure. Innovation and water haven’t often been located in the same sentence, but RainReady is doing its part to change that, innovating the way that governments and communities think about and approach water issues in ways that spur economic development and community asset creation, rather than increasing decline and degradation. We look forward to continuing this work, with partners old and new.

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