Could new design initiatives be the cure for Elmhurst’s flooding problems? A pair of Elmhurst residents seem to think so.
Former Elmhurst Alderman Ann Tranter and 21-year Elmhurst resident Jim Patchett have their own ideas to battle stormwater. Patchett is founder and president of Conservation Design Forum, 375 W. First St. He believes the solution to stop flooding lies in the land, itself.
“We look at the historical patterns of hydrology in prairies and woodlands of northeastern Illinois,” Patchett said. “Historically, when it rained, water tended to be absorbed into the ground where it fell. Our prairie ecosystems were like sponges. It was a very root-intensive grassland ecosystem. We really didn’t have runoff.”
Patchett said the flooding problems of today have to do with the way stormwater is collected. He said rain is not given the chance to be absorbed into the earth, as it has been historically.
“Water is not effectively absorbed where it falls,” he said. “The whole concept of engineering is to capture it, store it and send it away. Storm sewers don’t solve any problems. They cause them.”
Patchett believes the concept of "passing along" storm water is a flawed one. He says water is treated as a waste product rather than a resource, and stresses caused by large rainfalls can cause stormwater systems to fail, leading to flooding.
One solution provided by Conservation Design Forum is a green-roof system. A few inches of soil in a rooftop garden can reduce the large runoff created by a building's roof by 70 percent or more over the course of a season. This system greatly lessens or even eliminates water from ever leaving the roof of a building, Patchett said.
One of the large-scale projects to battle flooding is a porous pavement system. According to CDF, porous pavers can effectively absorb as much or more than 10 inches of precipitation per hour in new installations, and around 3 to 3 1/2 inches per hour as the pavers settle in.
Patchett said the green street solutions are designed to last for decades. Instead of water flowing above the pavement, it is absorbed into the pavers and allowed to flow into the earth below.
“A street is no longer just a street,” he said. “It’s all part of a water and energy management system. Rain water gets in the ground quickly. The result is dramatic reductions in runoff and flooding.”
The system is currently under construction in the town of West Union, Iowa, where six city blocks are being retrofitted to create street, parking and sidewalks using the pavers.
“It was the state of Iowa’s first pilot green street project,” he said. “In 2008 we were hired to be the lead designers. We design holistic green street solutions that actually solve the problem.”
Patchett says a commitment to the program would allow a community like Elmhurst to access state and federal funding programs. Though the installation costs are high, Patchett says the long-term savings are worth it. Costs vary depending on the design.
"For instance, a modular porous pavement system may cost in the range of $5 per square foot installed as compared to $2.50 to $3.50 per square foot for asphalt or concrete," he said. "But the longevity of the infrastructure and reduced life cycle and maintenance costs can offset the initial construction costs, plus the ability to effectively reduce ongoing costs associated with flooding from conventional systems."
Tranter, a business development leader at CDF, said the pavers are designed to withstand Chicago’s harsh winters. The stone system has voids, which allows for less freezing, and the pavers can expand and contract without heaving.
CDF would recommend for Elmhurst a modular system delivered in pallets, like large tiles, Tranter said. If any work is needed underneath the street, a section can be lifted and replaced without any sign of work being done.
Tranter said she hopes to one day work with Elmhurst to see the system put in place.
“The difficult part is we have city engineers across the country who have been educated in only one particular way,” she said. “It’s difficult for them to abandon what they learned and learn a whole new technology. It requires a commitment to look at these practices.”
Tranter said she’s talked with former Elmhurst City Manager Tom Borchert, Director of Public Works Mike Hughes, Elmhurst Zoning and Planning commissioners and Elmhurst League of Women’s Voters. She hopes to speak with new Elmhurst City Manager James Grabowski soon.
"We have ruled nothing out," Grabowski said. "Regarding stormwater solutions I would say anything is being considered. However, I think the city will need more significant solutions. We expect the final report from our consultants at the end of the month."
Tranter feels strongly that conservation solutions for Elmhurst are something the city should seriously look into.
“We have all of this land, and we basically just paved the surface,” she said. “We can re-evaluate what we’re doing and accommodate for a sustainable future. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”