Conservation Design Forum Takes its Ideas for Stormwater Management to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon

Elmhurst-based firm says municipal leaders should stop investing solely in 1960's sewer infrastructure and take a look at green water-management systems.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon met last month with Elmhurst-based Conservation Design Forum to explore the increased use of high-performance green infrastructure for environmental, economic and social benefit in Illinois.

In the wake of severe floods in 2008 and 2010, many Midwest communities still are trying to identify the most cost effective, environmentally sustainable solutions to flood reduction and control. According to CDF, these challenges provide an opportunity for local and state officials to become leaders in the green infrastructure movement. 

The meeting came about after Simon hosted the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio/Wabash Joint River Councils meeting last February in Springfield. Elmhurst resident James Patchett, president and founder of CDF, addressed some of the causes related to increased flood frequencies and severity, as well as shortcomings associated with traditional stormwater engineering practices. He provided an overview of emerging innovations in integrated urban green infrastructure systems, which provide site and regional groundwater recharge, flood reduction, water quality enhancement and ecosystem viability.

On Aug. 23, Patchett along with colleague and former Elmhurst alderman Ann Tranter, met with Simon and Sheila Chalmers, constituent affairs coordinator, to further explore green infrastructure applications for communities throughout the state.

CDF representatives shared with Simon their approach, which involves managing water by replicating natural water cycles and eliminating or reducing the use of conventional stormwater infrastructure. CDC showed Simon built examples to identify how these practices can support a local economy and reduce operating costs.

In contrast to traditional stormwater engineering practices designed to direct water away from where it falls, sustainable approaches to rainwater management treat water as a resource rather than a waste product. These practices involve cost-effective measures designed to clean, diffuse and absorb water where it falls, thus restoring the historical patterns of groundwater dominated hydrology and water quality.

Where most conventional infrastructure systems, including standard stormwater sewer systems, are essentially single purpose in nature, integrated green infrastructure systems are designed to be multi-purpose. Complete green streets can be designed to provide for pedestrian, vehicular and alternative transportation, yet at the same time absorb and cleanse water on-site, resulting in:

  • substantial reduction of water runoff and flooding
  • water quality enhancement of surface and groundwater systems
  • reduction or elimination of conventional storm sewer systems and traditional stormwater detention basins
  • increased longevity of infrastructure coupled with reduced maintenance and operating costs
  • enhanced aesthetics and pedestrian/alternative circulation
  • potential for district and neighborhood-wide alternative energy systems

Techniques that bring water’s positive properties to bear in urban environments may include green vegetated roofs, porous pavement systems, bio-swales, rain gardens and other bio-retention measures, rainfall collection and re-use systems such as storage cisterns, and the incorporation of deep-rooted, highly absorbent native or drought tolerant ornamental landscape systems.

Many communities throughout North America have already enacted guidelines and policies that either support or mandate green infrastructure, notably Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland and Seattle.  It is likely that pending federal USEPA water quality regulations will essentially mandate the integration of green infrastructure systems in order to meet compliance in coming years, according to CDF.

The Projects

In its 18-year history, CDF has led the design of many sustainable initiatives, including serving as lead designer for Chicago City Hall’s green roof in the late 90s. 

More recently, CDF has designed several high profile “complete green streets” projects, including Iowa’s Pilot Green Main Street project in West Union, which includes six blocks of porous streets, parking and walkways designed to infiltrate, cleanse and cool storm water on site. The main street incorporates 27,000 square feet of rain gardens, district geothermal heating and cooling system connected to 60 downtown buildings, LED street lights, building energy audits and energy efficiency incentives, electric vehicle charging stations, improved walk-ability and accessibility, upper-story housing, public art and a community gathering plaza. A research project led by the Iowa Economic Development Authority is studying the ongoing environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project.

In nearby Charles City, Iowa, CDF designed permeable streetscapes for 26 neighborhood-scale blocks that included permeable paving, parkway bio-retention, and infiltration beds. The permeable streetscape system is designed to capture runoff from streets, yards and alleys, and provide complete infiltration for the two-year storm event. Peak discharges for the 10-year storm are projected to be reduced by more than 90 percent. Reduction in stormwater runoff also decreased the need to replace existing storm sewers in adjacent neighborhoods that were undersized due to increased runoff from more frequent, higher intensity rainfall events.

CDF also designed a complete green streets plan for the city of Carbon Cliff, Ill.  The permeable streets, integrated with bio-retention parkways, address runoff from the sidewalks, driveways, roofs and front yards, as well as any overflow from the new roads. The green street system, the first phases of which are currently under construction, avoids the need for the installation of conventional storm sewers, accommodates sump pump discharges, and replaces crumbling roads with a durable, long lasting and aesthetically pleasing brick street.

CDF is working with the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development on green infrastructure stormwater planning for the city’s 23 industrial corridors. CDC also is working with the department to evaluate the city’s sustainable development policy, and is leading a team in the development of comprehensive “water wise” design guidelines that will promote the integration of green infrastructure systems throughout the campus of the University of Chicago.

Sen. Paul Simon Connection

Lt. Gov. Simon and her family have a long history of commitment to the conservation of natural resources and the support of sustainable practices.  In January 1998, a book authored by Simon’s father, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, was released. Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It predicts a catastrophic global water crisis unless drastic measures are taken. Sen. Simon, a newspaperman before he became a politician, used statistics to outline the looming crisis, along with many long-term solutions for both government and ordinary citizens.

Nearly 15 years later, the issues Sen. Simon raised, as well as innovative water conservation strategies, are getting more attention due to frequent weather extremes, increased discussions regarding potential climate change, and growing concerns about nationwide and worldwide fresh water shortages

Many conventionally trained public works officials, regulators and practitioners are largely unfamiliar with green infrastructure standards and practices, according to CDF. Green infrastructure approaches require different levels of analysis and implementation of solutions over time, rather than the “one big project.” Economic analysis of green infrastructure must address both first and second costs. Additionally, watershed-scale benefits require longer-term applications, crossing municipal boundaries, and broader land use considerations that are best achieved by inter-community cooperation.

Local codes and ordinances are beginning to change in support of green infrastructure, but institutional obstacles still remain.

A variety of state and federal funding programs are available to support integrated green infrastructure. In Illinois, the USEPA Section 319 non-point water pollution control program is administered through the IEPA, as well as the Illinois Green Infrastructure Grant program. The multi-benefit nature of the solutions in many cases opens up opportunities to tap into diverse grant programs for which conventional infrastructure projects would not be eligible.

CDF is hoping that support from Lt. Gov. Simon, and other like-minded state leaders, will provide increased promotion of green infrastructure practices, including expanded programs and state-level policy/endorsement of the values and benefits of integrated green infrastructure.

Information provided by Conservation Design Forum.


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