In response to severe storms and significant flooding in Winnetka, the Village has proposed a new, controversial plan to manage stormwater.  Based on researching reports, attending meetings and talking with several experts, I will summarize my concerns about the Willow Tunnel (click links for back-up sources).


Let me start off by stating, I’m a 17-year resident of Winnetka.  We are one of the estimated 1,100 homes in town that flooded badly during the July 2011 heavy storm.  And once again in April 2013.  This happened in our new “flood proof” house that we carefully designed with seven storm sewer drains, swales, two 6’ x 54’ retention tanks under our driveway, and 3 sump pumps.  After dealing with our drenched basement, I’m all for effective solutions to prevent flooding damage.   We’ve worked with a waterproofing specialist to shore up our home, constructed a floodwall near window wells, and meticulously maintain our sump pumps and drains.  We’ve also added green infrastructure to better manage wet weather on our property. Last fall we installed Winnetka’s first porous concrete driveway and we are disconnecting downspouts to rain barrels and rain gardens. This is in addition to our extensive tree canopy and native plantings with deep absorbent roots.  These best practices help rain soak into the ground instead of an overburdened sewer system or our basement.  I expect the Village to address our community’s stormwater problems in an integrated fashion as well.  However, our village leaders seem to be fixated on grey infrastructure, particularly the super-sized tunnel under Willow Road that will discharge polluted stormwater into Lake Michigan.  Despite recent talk, to date Winnetka has dodged green infrastructure solutions, nationally recognized as one of the best ways to manage stormwater and increasingly embraced in local communities (see wren’s North Shore Green infrastructure Tour).  These practices provide flood control and filter pollutants, lending to healthier local waterways.  Here’s a rundown of missed opportunities and legitimate issues that lead me to believe Winnetka is proceeding in the wrong direction:  



High Costs & Uncertainty

The proposed Willow Tunnel plan is expensive.  Starting in July, we will be assessed one of the highest stormwater utility fees in the country, that will escalate over time.  With financing costs, the project could run to nearly $70 million over 30 years.  Other taxes and costs will likely rise to absorb passed on school district, park district and other public building’s stormwater user fees. For example, it’s estimated that School District #36 will be assessed $53,000 per year.  Assuming there are no snags, this expensive project will not be complete until 2018.   Despite massive investment, there’s no guarantee this long lasting, inflexible, oversized tunnel project will stop basements from flooding.



Backwards, Narrow Gray Approach  

Winnetka has not provided a comprehensive, integrated Stormwater Master Plan. Initially, after the July 2011 storm, Director of Public Works Steve Saunders remarked at a Village Council meeting, “We need to vigorously pursue open space for detention…This is not a piping solution. This is a detention solution.”  The Flood Risk Reduction Assessment recommended working with New Trier High School, Winnetka School District #36, the Cook County Forest Preserve and the Winnetka Park District to detain stormwater.   But the Village turned to piping and dumping stormwater into Lake Michigan as the exclusive flood control approach.  An estimated $41 million in capital improvements is proposed to expand sewer capacity for 100-year storm events.  At the centerpiece is the 8-foot diameter, 9,700 foot Willow Road Tunnel.


The problems with this default, single bullet approach?  First, the plan did not start with robust data assessment of flood damages (on-site inspections by trained professionals vs. counting trash piles and written surveys) to determine the root and extent of problems; the potential for flood prevention strategies by retrofitting at risk homes, businesses and neighborhoods; and a true cost-benefit analysis of the different options.  See Thinking Outside The Pipe on Urban Flooding: The Case of Winnetka, IL by the Center for Neighborhood Technology for more on this localized approach.


Second, the plan doesn’t prioritize best management practices and green infrastructure as a precursor to large scale grey infrastructure.  There is a good reason the U.S. EPAIllinois EPAFEMA, Illinois Department of Natural ResourcesCook County Watershed Management Ordinance, nearly every planning agency and environmental group emphasize the use of green infrastructure, offer grants for these best management practices and/or require these practices for permitting.   And why regional, national and international communities are turning to these nature-based solutions, most notably the City of Chicago’s $50 million investment in green infrastructure improvements. These measures reduce run-off, improve water quality and provide a host off other community and environmental benefits. The Village maintains that green infrastructure is not sufficient to reduce run-off for a 100 year-storm, but necessary for the tunnel project to meet water quality requirements.   The Master Plan lacks specifics on the implementation of best management practices, does not include green infrastructure in budget estimates, and only recommends 3 meager action items.  After several years and $3 million in engineering contracts primarily devoted to the expansion of sewers and tunnel design, MWH consultants will conduct a 2- hour green infrastructure workshop with Village staff. Based on this, MWH will develop alternative model scenarios with green infrastructure and tunnel sizing impacts.  Unfortunately, this insufficient study will not include the input of regional green infrastructure experts for a more in-depth analysis.  As further described below, the Village has shown the Willow tunnel project makes little room for wide ranging green solutions. Instead of putting a risky, expensive, long to complete, least flexible gray option first, why not pursue a modern, all-of-the-above approach that nurtures green partnerships (large- and small-scale) and eliminates the need to discharge into Lake Michigan?



gray ^ green



Real Water Pollution & Significant Obstacles

Stormwater is highly polluted. As described by the EPA, runoff from roofs, roads, and paved surfaces can pick up  a wide range of contaminants, including toxic chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, used motor oil and exhaust from vehicles; pet and wildlife waste; human waste from improperly cross connected sewage pipes; bacteria and pathogens; nitrogen and phosphorus (from fertilizers); construction sediment; and debris. The Village’s recent misleading “What is Stormwater?” e-blast failed to mention most of these contaminants.  Discharge of polluted run-off into Lake Michigan threatens our valued beaches and drinking water supply, causing a host of adverse environmental impacts.  Currently, most of our stormwater goes untreated into the Skokie River, which clearly is not very clean.  According to the Master Plan, water testing confirms that water discharged at Winnetka beaches and the Skokie Lagoon has elevated levels of fecal coliform (e-coli), nitrogen, phosphorus, total dissolved solids, and total suspended solids.  The Willow tunnel would radically boost the volume of stormwater pollutants entering the Lake.  While the Village is careful to say they will adhere to Clean Air Act, stormwater discharge is weakly regulated and will not assure “maintained or enhanced water quality,” a stated objective of the Master plan.  The State and Federal permits needed for the Willow tunnel, involving five regulatory agencies, are not pre-approved.  There’s no certainty these hurdles can be overcome. Leading environmental organizations have serious concerns about pollution discharges into Lake Michigan from the Willow tunnel, a troubling precedent for our region, as outlined in this joint Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and  Environmental Law & Policy Center letter.  A legal challenge by these formidable groups could slow or stop the tunnel project.  Stricter water quality regulations on e-coli total daily maximum loads (TMDLs) and other forms of stormwater pollution are also looming, which would require retrofits at Lake Michigan and the Skokie Lagoons, driving future costs even higher.  We need to be mindful of long term and regional implications. 



Squandered Grant to Help Retrofit At-Risk Homes?

Back to the localized approach mentioned above, in March 2012, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) helped Winnetka and other communities obtain a $500,000 IKE Disaster Recovery grant (later reduced to $200,000).  This funding could be used to inspect at-risk homes, buildings and neighborhoods to discover the root of problems, and recommend swift and low-cost retrofit measures to prevent flood damage. Unfortunately, it looks as if this valuable funding may be lost due to the Village’s lack of follow through.   According to Linda Bowen with Illinois Disaster Recovery on  2/14/14, Winnetka has had “no official response” since the second RFP was posted.   The grant funding expires on April 30, 2014 and it is doubtful this grant will be extended.  Especially when the Village’s Master Plan’s stated objective is to reduce future flood damage to existing buildings by helping property owners retrofit flood-prone buildings, losing this immediate support for affected neighborhoods would be incredibly unfortunate.



Stormwater Fee Structure that Inhibits Best Practices

Contrary to the Master Plan’s stated objective to encourage best management practices and listing of various financial incentive strategies, the Village’s approach is more likely to hinder adoption.  Starting in July, Winnetka residents will begin to pay a stormwater user “fee” calculated by the property’s impervious surface.  These fees will feed the Stormwater Utilty Fund, designed to pay off debt on capital improvements for the tunnel project. For properties that have have taken measures to reduce stormwater run-off and their “use” (thereby reducing the burden to the community) –  stormwater user fees discounts are typically offered.  After sitting through a Village study session that discussed stormwater free credits, it was clear the trustees were largely uninterested in anything that interfered with financing of the Willow Tunnel project.  As part of the Stormwater Ordinance, they eventually agreed to individual and partner credits with restrictive criteria and limited availability, capped once tunnel construction begins.   So if a church hopes to reduce their stormwater bill by installing permeable pavers, or a homeowner with rain gardens and rain harvesting, unless these projects can detain at least 50% of the property’s stormwater during a 100-year storm and installation occurs before the tunnel, they will get zero credit.   Furthermore, the trustees rejected green infrastructure and engineering evaluation/drainage improvement rebates and incentives financed through the stormwater utility fund.   Other local communities already offer these incentives. For example, Glenview offers 50% rain garden rebate, Northbrook offers a 50/50 drainage rebate, and Chicago’s Sustainable Backyard Program offers residents rebates on purchases of trees, native plants, compost bins, and rain barrels.  It’s all about the tunnel.  Without user fee discounts and incentives to promote best management practices, it’s hard to imagine how green infrastructure will progress in Winnetka.  



Failure to Inform, Demonstrate & Adopt

Despite a difficult history of flooding in Winnetka occurring long before 2008, 2011 and 2013, the Village’s public education efforts on stormwater best management practices, including green infrastructure solutions, have been negligible.  Other local communities, have made a stronger effort.  For example, the Village of  Wilmette is co-hosting the massive  Going Green Matters Fair: “Water Matters: Stormwater Management, Conservation, Water quality and Recreation” on Sunday, March 9, 2014; fully cooperated in League of Women Voters Stormwater Study; and offers easy access information on their Website regarding rain barrels, rain gardens, permeable pavement and flood protection.   In 2011, volunteers installed a demonstration rain garden at Wilmette’s Village Hall to encourage residents to follow suit (rain gardens are also showcased in Highland Park, Northbrook, Evanston, Glenview, etc.).  Wilmette and Glenview offer engineering evaluation drainage programs.  Winnetka does not have a rain garden demonstration, passed up a donation of permeable pavers several years ago, and does not offer drainage assessment assistance.  When it comes to public improvements, such as green alleys, sidewalks or parkways utilizing permeable pavement and bioswales, none of these best management projects have been attempted by the Village.



Lack of Community Consensus & Collaboration

The Village Council did not have a two-way dialogue with residents about flood protection options.  They simply presented an all or nothing plan.  For “the biggest public works project in Winnetka” and one of the highest stormwater fees in the country, trustees did not seek voter consent, a valued tradition in our community.  For some perspective on the Village’s lack of public engagement on this major project, see this post by former Village President Jessica Tucker.  As I have personally experienced, the Trustees have been generally averse to residents offering comments about tunnel concerns and green infrastructure alternatives. Trustees disregarded the Winnetka Environmental Commission’s input on green infrastructure and did not consult with them while devising the Stormwater Master Plan. The Commission’s chairperson, Debbie Ross, who has long studied green infrastructure solutions in her national role with the Garden Club of America, resigned in frustration.  Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance of more than 300 public, non-profit and corporate entities, wrote a letter to the Village stating their concern over the Willow Tunnel Project and potential negative impacts to Lake Michigan ecosystem.  And offered they “stand ready to work with the Village to explore alternative approaches that utilize a combination of green and grey infrastructure.”  Unfortunately the Village did not respond. Winnetka would likely encounter less resistance by addressing residents’ concerns and partnering with trusted, knowledgeable groups such as Chicago Wilderness, Center for Neighborhood Technology and others to create a leading, visionary plan could benefit our community and regional natural resources.



Déjà vu

We have been down this road once before, and unfortunately the Village Council took the least economical, least environmental path.  When it came to contracting with our electricity provider, Winnetka gambled on coal power and the new Prairie State coal mine/plant and signed a long-term contract with IMEA until 2030.  Winnetka residents now pay one of the highest electric bills in Illinois for the dirtiest source of  power.   See more at Chicago Tribune’s Towns Pay a High Price for Power, and wren’s Winnetka Pays Top Dollar For Dirty Power Winnetka’s Dirty Secret.



I don’t want our home to flood ever again, or anyone else’s for that matter.  But I also don’t want the remedy to create a slew of other problems. We need a better, faster, effective mix of solutions to prevent flood damage, that is both fiscally prudent and environmentally sound.  On Election Day, Winnetkans have a chance to say NO to the myopic, risky Willow tunnel plan.  Let’s instead demand a forward thinking, wide-scope approach with scaled-up green best management practices to offer both flood protection and clean water resources, a plan our entire community can rally behind.



On the March 18 (early voting starts March 3), as a vote of no confidence, I am voting NO to the 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 



Please consider doing the same, and help get out to VOTE!


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Written by Amanda Hanley. Thank you for input from Karen Hobbs/Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Harriet Festing/Director of Water Program with Center For Neighborhood Technology, and Steve Saunders/Village of Winnetka Director of Public Works.