It’s raining a lot more — and that’s a problem

This spring has been one of the wettest ever in northern Illinois.  

The increased frequency of weather systems that cause continuous, torrential rain and storm events that drop huge amounts rain in a very short period of time are both symptomatic of climate change in the Chicago region. Jim Angel, Illinois’ former state climatologist, recently stated that more intense storms and heavy rains that drop several inches at a time are becoming more frequent across northern Illinois.

According to the National Weather Service, three of the five wettest years on record in Chicago have occurred in the last decade, including 2018, which ranked fourth with over 49 inches of precipitation (the annual average is around 36 inches). And we are starting to see these weather patterns happen annually. During one 24-hour period in July 2017, Lake County, IL received over seven inches of rain. In 2018, Lake County was under flood conditions on six separate occasions. And this past May was the wettest ever for the month, surpassing the record set only last year. 

Flooding impacts our lives, and the increased intensity of rain is already forcing us to rethink how we design our built environment.

Photo (top), flooding in Suburban Burbank, 2014: Heather Charles/Chicago Tribune

These rain events are informing studies used to update Bulletin 70, which measures the frequency of rainfall and the intensity of heavy rainstorms in Illinois. Updating Bulletin 70 is important because it is used by engineers to properly design stormwater pipes, detention ponds, bridges above rivers and streams, and infrastructure so they can sustain expected rainfall. Having these new metrics will help us better plan for a future in a changing climate. But even as we prepare new standards for engineers to deploy, the problem of all this rain remains for older infrastructure.

Our region – everything from rural towns to densely populated urban areas, farmland, housing, routes of transportation, and schools – was not built to withstand seasonal flooding like this. For many of us, the impacts of flooding are felt during our daily commute, but for far too many of us, the effects are felt worst when water is pouring into our basements or when an entire year’s crops – and income – are lost to intense farmland flooding.

Farm fields in Illinois are currently so saturated that less than half of the typical crop of corn and soybeans, the state’s two largest crops, has been planted this year.

These are exactly the type of climate impacts on the Midwest we were warned about last year in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, and that means we need to get to work on implementing climate solutions.

Photo: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune

As a region, we need to implement more solutions for tackling stormwater and flooding, and we need to consider climate change in all decisions. For starters, we can be much smarter with vacant and under-developed lands in urban areas. Milwaukee’s BaseTern program, for example, utilizes vacant buildings for stormwater management. We also should be incorporating natural features, such as rain gardens and trees, into public spaces. These simple features capture and hold significant amounts of rain, dramatically reducing the impact of flooding on public spaces. We should expand solutions like these and increase financial support for their long-term care.

As our region continues to grow, we need to be far more considerate when designing new developments and buildings, and we need to consider alternatives when available, including retrofitting. The Space to Grow program, for instance, redesigns CPS schoolyards into vibrant green campuses while installing stormwater management systems that can hold upwards of 750,000 gallons of rain water. Likewise, farmers can implement practices on their land that not only provide healthy food, but also stabilize the health of soil and improve ecosystem services like flood mitigation. Learn more about low-impact and sustainable design.

We also need to be much smarter at protecting existing landscapes that offer multiple benefits: farmland and natural areas, for example, are landscapes that can often mitigate the effects of climate change by sequestering carbon, mitigating flooding, and reducing temperatures. But too often, these lands are converted into new developments, resulting in new roads, buildings, concrete, and impervious surfaces, which together exacerbate the effects of climate change.

Finally, damaging floods like the ones we’ve seen over the past several years are a reminder of the future that’s to come if we fail to enact bold climate solutions. We are running out of time to act on climate change, which means we need to transition our economy to clean energy, and just as importantly, we need to scale up strategies that help put carbon back in the ground. The Chicago region has actually managed growth in a fairly smart manner, making us an international model. But if we allow unsound growth to continue unabated and if we fail to address the root causes of the climate crisis, we’ll scrub the advantages we have in facing this challenge.

We need to rethink how we live with increased flooding, but we must also get serious about addressing the climate crisis.

Photo: the Space to Grow schoolyard at Chicago’s Wadsworth Elementary

For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for protecting clean water and our region’s waterways. Learn more about our efforts to address climate change in the Chicago region.

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