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When it comes to a complicated, controversial $41+ million municipal project, let’s dig a little deeper for good information.  Lately my inbox has been bombarded with ironic “THE TRUTH ABOUT…” e-mails from a pro-tunnel group. While they have been long on folksy, fact-ish viewpoints, I’ve noticed they are short on expertise, source links, authorship and accountability.   One that predominantly featured the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) logo and letterhead was especially misleading and wrong.  As co-chair of NRDC’s Midwest Council, I’m familiar with this organization’s highly respected water protection work and was shocked to see the shameless, unauthorized use of their logo connected with bogus stormwater pollution conclusions.  Instead of contacting NRDC’s science, law or policy professionals (or any environmental expert ever??) to get the facts straight on water pollution – they cherry picked information to incorrectly imply that stormwater pollution is responsible for only 1% of beach closings in Illinois. See NRDC’s rebuke Winnetka Stormwater Tunnel: What About The Other 99 Percent of Pollution?, once again reaffirming the legitimate problems of stormwater pollution.




The Village has also downplayed stormwater impacts.  Their recent  “What is Stormwater” e-blast noted, “Even in studying sources of pollution at impaired beaches, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) did not conclude stormwater was the primary cause of elevated E.coli levels.”   Interestingly, the actual 2013 IEPA report stated (page 45), “Stormwater is likely to have a large impact on the impaired beach segments” of suburban Cook County, which includes all of Winnetka’s beaches.  In case you may not realize this, beaches are closed or considered impaired when bacteria counts from animal and human waste exceed public health standards   No matter the spin, nothing can change the fact that stormwater is tainted from many nasty contaminants and causes a host of adverse impacts.  According to the Winnetka’s Stormwater Master Plan, water testing confirms that water discharged at Winnetka beaches and the Skokie Lagoon currently has elevated levels of fecal coliform (e-coli), nitrogen, phosphorus, total dissolved solids, and total suspended solids.  


Graphic from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Total Maximum Daily Load: Shoreline Segments in Suburban Cook County, May 15, 2013

Graphic from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Total Maximum Daily Load: Shoreline Segments in Suburban Cook County, May 15, 2013



Discounting water pollution risks does us no favors. 


The health of the beaches our kids play on and the quality our community’s drinking, bathing and recreational water is too important to mess with.   The Willow tunnel project would radically boost the velocity and volume of stormwater entering the Lake from large rain events, and it’s questionable if the design would “maintain or enhance our water quality.”   But don’t take my word for it.  See why numerous water experts, including the  Natural Resources Defense Council,  Environmental Law & Policy CenterCenter for Neighborhood Technology and Chicago Wilderness (a consortium of more than 300 public, non-profit and corporate organizations) have raised red flags on the super-sized Willow tunnel, a dangerous precedent in our region.  Also, just because Winnetka has contracted $2 million to design engineer the project and prematurely issued bonds, there’s no guarantee the regulatory agencies will approve the permits.  Committing this large sum without proper open review of real alternatives, and skirting how stormwater impacts beach pollution makes a viable permit less certain.


Beyond echoing the Village’s talking points, the pro-tunnel group has offered a simplistic solution to keep our beach water safe.  Hello? Diaper patrols at dog beaches!  Based on this logic, since the tunnel would discharge runoff that has picked up “outputs” from surfaces throughout Winnetka, should we diaper all of Winnetka’s dogs?  And squirrels, racoons, birds and other wildlife too?  What about wrapping big diapers around all construction sites that release sediment, yards that use fertilizers and pesticides, cars that drip motor oil and emit tailpipe exhaust, piles of black snow, and any other source of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, sewage (from improperly connected pipes) and trash?


We don’t need dog diapers.  What we really need are watchdogs.


Who is looking out for our community? Instead of blind support, we need critical examination of the biggest public works project in Winnetka that has bypassed citizen consent and will force property owners to pay one of the highest stormwater fees in the country.  Why is the pro-tunnel group – historically against rising municipal taxes and fees – now in lockstep allegiance with the Village’s boldly expensive $41 million plan with no questions asked about fiscal responsibilty?  Why aren’t they demanding vigorous public debate, a range of technical choices from diverse experts, and a thorough cost benefit analysis to ensure we are pursuing the best stormwater solutions and that our money is well spent?


Our home flooded badly in 2011 and again 2013, and I absolutely agree that we must pursue effective solutions to protect our homes and community.  But throwing money at an outdated, unchecked plan isn’t smart.  There are better solutions.  Unfortunately, our village elders have blinders on.  And so do their cheerleaders.   Let’s get past selective facts and get serious about faster, less risky, cost effective solutions.  A modern green infrastructure approach, nationally recognized as one of the best ways to manage stormwater but largely overlooked in Winnetka’s Master Plan, can reduce run-off AND filter pollutants.



For these reasons, and more fully described in my previous post Winnetka’s Tunnel Vision, I am voting NO on the March 18th Winnetka Stormwater referendum:


“Should the Village of Winnetka implement the portion of the Village’s Stormwater Management Program that includes building a tunnel under Willow Road to discharge stormwater into Lake Michigan, at an estimated project cost exceeding $30 million (plus substantial bond financing costs)?”


And to elect these Winnetka Caucus-slated Village Trustee Candidates:

Mirela Gabrovska

Scott Lewis

Stuart McCrary 



On Tuesday, MARCH 18, please consider doing the same, and passing on the word.


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Written by Amanda Hanley