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With more record rainfall, we need Nature-Based Solutions

This past week saw a flurry of records. Thursday, May 14th and Sunday, May 17th each saw record precipitation for those individual days. Looking at data for year to date, we are far ahead of past trends. The recent storms have flooded yards, basements, and caused the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to reverse the flow of the Chicago River back into Lake Michigan. In a normal year, Chicago receives 35 inches to 40 inches of rain per year, mostly in steady summer increments. We are already at half of that total with 6.5 months remaining, and our historically wettest season to come. 

Last June, Openlands published a blog on increased rain and its regional impact for the spring of 2019. This blog corresponded mainly with the intersection of the release of new data by the Illinois Geological Survey empirically showing increased rainfall and farmers inability to plant their fields due to the wet weather. While it is too early yet to know what the rest of the spring will bear, this past week of rainfall indicate that Midwest projections released over consecutive National Climate Assessments are eerily correct: more precipitation in winter and spring.

What can be done? Openlands’ partners offer great solutions. Friends of the River has begun issuing Overflow Action Day alerts that notify people to put off running dishwashers, washing machines, and to take shorter showers during intense weather events to help relieve local flooding and combined sewer overflows. Combined sewers are an outdated method of dealing with both stormwater and sewage. When too much rain overwhelms the system, stormwater and sewage water are combined and flow directly into Chicago area waterways. Chicago’s Deep Tunnel System (TARP,) Rain barrels, sump pumps and other solutions also work.

These solutions are all necessary, but, Openlands argues that in the face of a changing climate, society needs every tool in the toolbox. And there is no better tool than nature itself – in the form of nature-based solutions. A single mature tree can prevent 2000 gallons of rainwater from hitting the ground and entering stormwater sewer systems per year. Openlands forestry program works with communities to plant trees to improve our urban forest to help mitigate local flooding and climate change impacts. The Space To Grow program is an advanced form of nature-based solutions that reduces neighborhood flooding while offering powerful benefits to rehabilitating Chicago Public School schoolyards like exercise, outdoor education and nature based play in park poor communities. Openlands farmland and urban agriculture policy work as well as our restoration work also help to relieve local flooding during times like this. Our restoration work decreases runoff into local streams by 94% and 110 million gallons less flow into the streams and waterways.

There are many others that are actions individuals and organizations can take to mitigate flooding, such as green roofs, raingardens, bioswales, and permeable pavers or simply planting a tree or native plants on your property. Openlands supports and applauds them all not only in our effort to connect people to nature where you live, but also by putting the nature around us to work for the betterment of Chicago and our region.

To Effectively Combat Climate Change, We Need Environmental Justice

by Tolu Olorode, Manager of Data and Impact

It is known that climate change is rapidly changing American neighborhoods and the built environment. America’s most vulnerable populations, historically and systematically under-resourced communities of color, are more intensely affected by the environmental effects of climate change. With recent reports showing the staggering disparities in COVID-19 deaths in African Americans and other communities of color, the veil has been lifted to illustrate how environmental injustice can have monumental effects on entire populations.

To that end, one of the organizations we highlight below is fighting hard for justice at this very moment. In recent days, a cloud of dust from the demolition of a smokestack of a defunct coal plant covered a section of the Little Village neighborhood, endangering thousands of residents. LVEJO is calling advocates across the region to hold industry partners responsible for this very clear and deliberate display of environmental racism.

Openlands stands together with LVEJO and encourages our supporters to sign the petition to compel key stakeholders, including the State of Illinois, Hilco and the City of Chicago, to provide immediate relief to the Little Village community. This is one of many examples that illustrate the environmental challenges facing urban areas, and especially black and brown communities.   

We know that in urban areas there tends to be more asphalt and pollution, and less grass, open space, and trees. This contributes to the urban heat island effect that disproportionately affect communities of color. These higher temperatures actually create more air pollution, especially harmful ground-level ozone from fossil fuel burning and volatile organic compounds from farming and manufacturing.

Moreover, a recent study found that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Latinx minorities. This is primarily because of systemic institutional practices, such as redlining, that pushed members of these communities to live in undesired urban neighborhoods by the white majority, and these areas have tended to have higher levels of pollution.   With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing how the federally sanctioned rollbacks in air pollution regulations will only further adversely affect this communities.

We understand that there are other causes to segregation, not just redlining, including panic peddling, contract selling, the refusal of the government to approve of loans to People of Color, the GI Bill after WWII only being offered to white veterans, and more recently predatory lending practices.  Although these discriminatory practices are no longer legal, the effects are still being seen today as the climate changes.

While these populations are vulnerable, they are also resilient in many ways. Many neighborhood groups form long lasting action networks and task forces led by community members and leaders to demand changes to their areas.  These communities are putting environmental justice efforts at the top of their list of justice issues to tackle. As Openlands continues to advocate for nature-based solutions to climate change, we want to also look to and support our counterparts who have been doing this place-based work and serving these resilient populations for decades.  This is the first part in an ongoing series at Openlands, and I hope you’ll check back to learn about other great organizations and work being done soon.

Below are two organizations rooted in undeserved neighborhoods in Chicago (and statewide) that are addressing climate change issues on a grassroots level.

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

For over 25 years, LVEJO has championed healthy environmental practices in Little Village (a historically Mexican-American neighborhood). They have been at the forefront of large opposition to air pollution by industrial companies in their neighborhood, and its effect on residents.  In fact, Openlands’ branch office located in Pilsen is across the street from the Fisk Generating Station – a source of fossil fuel pollution that LVEJO led the successful fight to close down. In relation to climate justice specifically, LVEJO has committed to a campaign with a specific goal to develop a local climate adaptation plan and create a climate vulnerability and assets index and mapping system. The community centered approach LVEJO takes allows for its residents to feel a deep connection to the work of the organization, and contributes to its success for all these years.

Faith in Place 

Using mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship as anchors, Faith in Place empowers these already intact enclaves to lead a plethora of environmental justice efforts. This is an interfaith, statewide approach that taps community and faith leaders to entrust their congregations with programming ranging from addressing climate change community impacts to advocacy campaigns that challenge harmful environmental policies. In fact, Faith in Place has dedicated 2020 as their “Rooted in Climate Justice” year. For them, this means unpacking environmental racism and its roots in climate degradation and exploring possible solutions.In the past, Openlands and Faith in Place have partnered on the southwest side of the City to advance urban forestry efforts, tree planting, and skill building in relation to community greening to directly address neighborhood climate change concerns.   

We recognize the climate change fight is not going to be won in a vacuum and supporting the historically marginalized in our region only strengthens the endeavor. We’ve had relationships with both organizations in the past and believe our constituents should too. Support LVEJO here and Faith in Place here to sustain the collective effort for environmental and social justice.

There are others in the region doing impressive work as well that we hope you dig deeper to learn more about:

Clean Energy Jobs Act: Why it’s important, what nature-based solutions can contribute, and how you can support it now

By Andrew Szwak, Manager of Governmental Affairs

Across the globe, we’ve come to an economic halt with the disturbing rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with that halt, news coverage has noted the corollary drop in climate emissions

While emissions are down today, the havoc this pandemic has wreaked on our health, communities, jobs, and nation is immense. It is also a blow to our global climate reduction goals, with the potential to lose sight of our commitments. Instead, we must rise to this challenge and rethink how to drive our economy and meet climate objectives with nature-based approaches in mind.  

At Openlands, we have put strategic focus on dealing with climate change and the nature-based solutions that can mitigate it. Nature-based solutions can provide 37% of the carbon reductions the world needs to comply with the Paris Agreement, and yet it receives only 1-2% of the investment.

In Illinois, one of the biggest climate change initiatives has coalesced around state legislation called the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). A diverse coalition of labor supporters, utility groups, and environmental organizations wrote CEJA to address four fundamental priorities:

  1. Transition all energy generation to renewable sources by 2050,
  2. Remove all carbon from energy generation by 2030,
  3. Take 1 million gas and diesel vehicles off the roads, and
  4. Promote jobs and equitable economic opportunity in the process.

These are ambitious goals, and necessary to ensure thriving communities, economies, and ecologies in the future.  But we must ensure that nature-based jobs and economies are included. Our ability to advance nature-based solutions gives Openlands and conservation organizations like us a key role within the global movement to curb the climate crisis, and serve as important tools in Illinois’ arsenal to meet these ambitious goals.

So how should conservation and nature-based solutions fit into CEJA?

1.Renewable energy and nature-based solutions need new job training opportunities.

The transition to renewable energy requires technicians and project managers who know these new technologies and the regulations that govern them. Similarly, increasing nature-based solutions demands more ecologists, landscape architects, engineers, hydrologists, and agriculturalists with specialized knowledge of how to install and maintain them. CEJA plans to create job training hubs for individuals to learn renewable energy skills. We are requesting that these hubs also include opportunities to learn green infrastructure installation and maintenance, urban forestry, regenerative farming practices, and other essential skills to increase nature-based climate solutions.

2. CEJA authorizes local governments to create Community Energy and Climate Plans.

These plans will guide investments in renewable energy, transportation, and workforce development. They provide excellent opportunities to embed natural climate solutions into the suite of tools that Illinois communities will use to combat climate change. Rural communities in particular will be well-positioned to prioritize workforce training and funding for natural climate solutions into their efforts. Consequently, Openlands is advocating for mandatory consideration of natural resources and natural climate solutions in these Community Energy and Climate Plans. We also hope to use these plans to build momentum for more concerted efforts to incentivize nature-based solutions.

3. CEJA incentivizes new renewable energy installations, such as community solar and wind facilities.

Energy generated by these facilities will need connections to the electricity grid. Unfortunately, renewable energy in other states has followed dirty energy’s lead by targeting public lands for transmission and siting of new projects. Protected public lands, on which nature-based solutions are so abundant, should never be sacrificed to accommodate additional, and often redundant, energy infrastructure. Openlands is advocating strongly for CEJA to include better safeguards against destruction of protected lands related to new energy projects.

We are working hard to align CEJA more closely with the interests of conservation. WE NEED YOU to support our work with your own advocacy. Lend your voice to passing the Clean Energy Jobs Act by contacting your state legislators using this form and ask them to include nature-based climate solutions in the final bill.

Where is the nature in the Presidential Candidates solutions to climate change?

By Tolu Olorode, Manager of Data & Impact

There are many hot button issues for the 2020 United States Presidential election, and climate change is getting more and more attention. A recent Pew Research survey has shown most Americans said dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress, rivaling economic and job concerns for the first time.

Openlands advocates for Nature Based Solutions (NBS) (also referred to as natural climate solutions). In the simplest terms, NBS utilize the natural environment to mitigate climate change impacts. Think planting native trees and plants in your backyard instead of putting in a cement patio to mitigate flooding in your neighborhood, protecting and acquiring natural landscapes that support diverse habitats, or passing legislation that protects bird migration patterns – these are all NBS policies, micro and macro, that support the ecosystems that naturally exist.

So why focus on nature to help solve our climate problems? Frankly, it presents us with one of the most common-sense solutions: working with nature will help heal the harm humans have done, in comparison to using new technology to solve the damage caused by older technology. Estimates show that using cost-effective NBS can provide 33% of climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize global warming to below 2 °C, climate change’s magic number.

With many primaries coming up soon, we wanted to take a deeper dive into each candidate’s climate policy to determine how their nature-based solutions stack up, if they mentioned any at all. 

Before we jump right in, a couple things to note. This list includes running candidates and public plans and policies as of February 20, 2020, and all the that had policy plans had the following components, which we refer to as “The Green Three”:

  • Energy impacts and creating jobs
  • Re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement
  • Some sort of “punishment” to large industry polluters  

Republican Candidates

Donald J. Trump: No Policy or Plan.   

Bill Weld:  Climate Policy

Although the plan is not very detailed, Weld pledges to address “The Green Three”. There are no specific references or plans to address nature or natural climate solutions.

Democratic Candidates

Joe Biden: Joe’s Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice

The plan is very robust and chiefly concerned with “The Green Three”. There are no specific references or plans to address nature or natural climate solutions.

Mike Bloomberg:  Fighting for a Bright, Sustainable Future

Although hitting on the “The Green Three” quite hard, the plan takes an imprecise position on federal and local level nature related ideas. In discussing climate change resilience, the plan pledges various federal agencies will work with local communities to develop resilience strategies for natural areas and working lands, aimed to maximize protection against climate hazards and protect communities. It doesn’t determine whether these resilience strategies will be nature based. Bloomberg’s plan also aims to create block grants to help states and cities acquire and otherwise protect floodplains, wetlands, coastal salt marshes and other natural areas that are critical to protecting communities from extreme weather.

Pete Buttigieg: Mobilizing America: Rising to the Climate Challenge

This plan reflects the Green New Deal (see Sanders’s Plan below). However, Buttigieg specifically calls out wanting to promote conservation of forests and grasslands through voluntary conservation programs, tax incentives, and the carbon sequestration market. While this does not explicitly add to the NBS conversation, this inclusion does reiterate that nature-based approaches are possible.

Tulsi Gabbard: No Policy or Plan.

Amy Klobuchar: Senator Klobuchar’s Plan to Tackle the Climate Crisis

In addition to “The Green Three”, part of the plan gives space to the science community to conduct research and gain knowledge for new and innovative green technologies to help combat climate change. This type of approach is quite unique in comparison to the other candidates’ plans. Klobuchar, however, did not specify nature or natural climate solutions in any aspect of her plan.

Bernie Sanders: Green New Deal

The plan specifically mentions conserving public lands in addition to “The Green Three”. This idea includes reinstating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to build green infrastructure, plant billions of trees and other native species, prevent flood and soil erosion, rebuild wetlands and coral, and eradicate invasive species and flora disease.

Tom Steyer: Justice Centered Climate Plan

Steyer’s plan is discretely focused on environmental justice and addressing climate change through this lens. Like Klobuchar, this justice centered approach is singularly distinctive in its novelty. While the plan dives deep into what justice could look like on this scale, there is no mention of natural climate solutions throughout the plan.  

Elizabeth Warren:  Tackling the Climate Crisis Head On

Warren’s platform includes 13 different climate plans that address separate climate related issues. Although one plan was specifically focused on “Protecting Public Lands” (related to land management and access), there are no specific references or plans to address nature or natural climate solutions.

Honorable mentions:

Even though Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet both dropped out of the race in early February, Yang was the only candidate that had a plan to measure the success of the implementation and sustainability of his climate change mitigation effort, and Bennet was the only candidate to who’s plan mentions agriculture-based conservation to mitigate climate change impacts.   

From Resolution to Action: 4 nature-based policy recommendations for Chicago’s climate resilience

By Ted Haffner, Openlands Climate Fellow

On January 15, Aldermen Matt Martin (47) and George Cardenas (12) along with 44 other Aldermen introduced a Resolution calling for the City of Chicago to declare a Climate Emergency. This resolution was a positive step, offering the most comprehensive proposal to initiate an emergency mobilization effort against climate change and its impacts. The resolution also goes the furthest in addressing environmental justice, saying that there must be “widespread conservation and restoration of ecosystems,” and that “justice requires that frontline and marginalized communities, which have historically borne the brunt of the extractive fossil-fuel economy, participate actively in the planning and implementation of this mobilization effort and that they benefit first from the transition to a climate-safe economy.”

It is now vital that we follow this step with action. The Mayor and City Council have numerous proposals before them that offer excellent opportunities to create real impact towards climate resilience. Here are just a few proposals that would bring the city a step closer to a climate-safe economy:

  • Create an Urban Forestry Advisory Board to assist the Bureau of Forestry and more adequately care for public trees and the climate benefits they provide. A study released just last week found that the historical practice of redlining has created neighborhoods with lower tree canopy cover than those wealthier non-redlined neighborhoods. A healthy urban forest is one of the most cost-effective measures to mitigate climate impacts, providing flood prevention through rainwater interception, lower temperatures via shade, improved air quality, and mental health benefits. An oversight board such as this that recommends meaningful policies is needed now more than ever.
  • Introduce legislation that promotes urban farming at a community scale. According to the resolution, regenerative agriculture is of a high priority. But Chicago is currently considering legislation that disincentivizes and restricts meaningful urban agriculture practices and businesses. It is vital for the City to support policies that might promote urban farming at a community scale, especially when that urban agriculture provides a necessary source of healthy food options for many in some of the biggest food deserts in our city. 
  • Pass habitat-friendly ordinances that support our natural ecosystems. As the most dangerous city for migratory birds, passing the Bird Friendly Design Ordinance to create a friendlier place for birds of all types, whether migrating through or staying put, will create huge impact.  And ensuring the dismissal of other proposals that seek to destroy migratory birds’ most valuable wildlife habitats, at places like Montrose Beach and South Shore Nature Sanctuary, are integral actions consistent with ending the “Sixth Mass Extinction,” as the resolution resolves to do.
  • Allow conservation at homes throughout the city. Finally, planting and maintaining native plants and pollinator gardens can be a powerful way for residents to personally act on climate change and mitigate flooding in their neighborhoods. Native prairie capture as much or more carbon than trees do, and with their extensive root systems, soak up water during rain events. Introducing a Chicago Weeds Ordinance that removes rules that disproportionately penalized property owners who plant and maintain native plant and pollinator gardens is essential.

Recycling, Air Pollution, Environmental Inspections, Transportation, the list is endless, and can seem daunting, but with the outlined solutions above, Chicago can take much needed steps towards addressing how our region will be affected by climate change. And it will be affected – in a recent event, author Dan Egan spoke about how vulnerable Chicago is to the impacts of climate change.

The resolution is only the beginning of what we hope is a new day in Chicago for climate policy, we all need to work together to ensure this powerful resolution doesn’t amount to just words. Chicagoans need action and action needs advocates.

Please join us in advocating for these and other issues by talking to your local officials, and adding your voice to our advocacy efforts to ensure a green, more climate resilient region for us all.

When Thinking About Climate, Think About Land

On August 8, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the Land and Climate Change report, which details the impacts of land use on the climate and the impacts of climate change on land. The report is upfront in its message: the ways humans use land impact the climate, and now we have the choice to either change our behavior to avoid catastrophe or double-down on our current efforts. Either way, the report indicates both tremendous risk and peril to our global livelihood and ability to adequately produce food and shelter.

This report adds to the increasingly clear message that the climate equation is far more complex than greenhouse gas emissions and reduction strategies. Yes, we need to decarbonize the global economy; dramatically reduce consumption patterns; and limit new extraction of natural resources. But we also need to fundamentally transform how and where most of our basic economic activities – such as farming, transportation, and housing – take place.

One of the key takeaways from this report is the reminder that land and the ways we use land have a very precarious relationship with the climate. Land can offer tremendous benefits towards influencing the climate by mitigating air temperatures and pulling carbon from the atmosphere, for example. But land, when mismanaged and abused, can also make destructive contributions to emissions, particularly when we convert natural areas and natural resources for the development of things like highways, sprawl, or mining. We have completely reshaped global landscapes and ecosystems to support our production of food, timber, clothing, and energy, and those combined land-uses now contribute about 22% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

The particular focus on emissions from land use in this report is alarming. As global populations continue to grow, become more affluent, and change consumption patterns, emissions from land uses are only expected to rise, which presents the need to overhaul how we produce food, how we manage natural resources, and how we protect land.


Somme Prairie

Land as a part of the ecosystem

Both the science and the task are daunting: how to undo arguably 250 years of emissions, still maintain the quality of life found in wealthy industrialized nations while providing for gains sought by poorer nations? In the search for answers, land and nature can lead the way.

In a truly functioning ecosystem, no resource is wasted, and every square inch provides a service – sometimes with ruthless efficiency. Simply, land and land use in a truly functioning ecosystem provides several functions: food, shelter, clean water, waste receptacle, and so on. While humans have technologically advanced since the industrial revolution, we have gone backwards in many ways and must look to nature for both inspiration and answers.

In terms of the IPCC report, humans no longer have the luxury of viewing land and land-use for single functions and to provide single benefits. Instead, land-use must mimic nature and provide two if not three essential functions or benefits in order to begin to solve our climate problems. For example, dwellings and structures should not only provide housing, offices, commerce, or manufacturing sites, but also include vegetation rich structures like green roofs that lower ambient air temperatures and serve as habitat. Urban forests, likewise, shade structures and intercept rainwater, while providing myriad other benefits like providing oxygen and helping improve the mental health of residents. Ideally, agriculture should not just provide food for humans, but also provide a symbiotic habitat for bugs, birds, and pollinators, and serve as a greater carbon sink than they currently contribute.

What’s striking about the recent UN report is the recognition that we don’t have unlimited land where these activities can take place, so we need to get much better at doing several things at once.

We know the solutions we can enact both for reducing our global emissions and for using land to our advantage against the looming climate crisis, but we face enormous societal, economic, and political challenges. Protecting and stewarding natural areas, supporting sustainable agriculture, and expanding the urban forest are all cited as solutions in the IPCC report. Similarly, these are all priorities for Openlands, and we will continue to lead on a regional scale. To do so, however, we need our elected officials to get serious about addressing this crisis by devoting the necessary resources to sustaining a healthy, habitable climate. Those resources and that leadership cannot come soon enough, and we are all responsible for holding our leaders accountable to deliver them.


Farmbill

Adopting Societal Approaches for Land Management

To some, this notion that land must now have multiple uses or provide multiple benefits may be foreign, but once again, we can say that we know the answers needed here. In terms of agriculture, what’s generally good for long-term farming is also good for the climate. As the IPCC report indicates, conservation practices build soil health in a way that holds carbon and puts it into crops, and crops are fuller and healthier because of it. But building soil health is an investment that sometimes takes years to pay for itself and farmers who are selling into globally competitive commodity crop markets can’t always afford to invest in their soils today. That’s where policies like the Federal Farm Bill need to incentivize conservation practices in order to bridge this affordability gap. Unfortunately, by failing to even acknowledge climate change and by cutting $5 billion from conservation-friendly programs, the 2018 Farm Bill did nowhere near enough to address the circumstances outlined in the latest UN report. Since farmland is key for these considerations not only because it’s where we produce food, but also because it’s the vast majority of land in the Midwest, we must change our societal approach, relationship and perception to both farming and our food.

The IPCC report also explicitly calls for better protection and stewardship of forests, which play a key role in mitigating climate. Countries like China, India, and Ethiopia have answered this call and are each planting billions of trees this year alone. They recognize that healthy forests are key to keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and prolonging a hospitable climate. Consequently, they are prioritizing precious public resources to re-establishing the forests they’ve lost, even when so many competing and dire needs exist. The Chicago region must follow the examples of those like China, India, and Ethiopia as well as the recommendations of the IPCC report. We must conserve and protect more natural areas, restore more ecosystems to health to strengthen carbon mitigation and climate resiliency, prevent further conversion of natural and agricultural lands to development, and localize our food systems to reduce emissions from food production.


PingTom_8038

While the continuing onslaught of news in the IPCC report on the climate is again grim, it is important to remember that we still have the ability to prevent a climate crisis. We as a society need to do a better job at protecting forests, assigning uses to and managing land, and producing food. And yes, as the IPCC report indicates, changing our dietary habits to local sources of food and eating less meat are important steps to take to reduce our personal carbon footprint to a sustainable level. But there is hope. The IPCC executive summary concludes by stating:

“Actions can be taken in the near-term, based on existing knowledge, to address desertification, land degradation and food security while supporting longer-term responses that enable adaptation and mitigation to climate change…”

Near-term action to address climate change adaptation and mitigation, desertification, land degradation and food security can bring social, ecological, economic, and development co-benefits. Co-benefits can contribute to poverty eradication and more resilient livelihoods for those who are vulnerable. With record spring rains in the Midwest, heatwaves in Europe, devastating wildfires in the Amazon and across Central Africa, and the warmest month ever recorded this past July, we are all looking a little vulnerable right now.

Despite those challenges, it is comforting to know that the authors of the IPCC report, as well as the United Nations delegates who can veto any portion of the executive summary, think we can handle this.

Photo: Patrick Williams

Read more about Openlands’ efforts to address the climate crisis or email climate@openlands.org for more information.

Speak at Public Meetings on Flooding in Lake County

Residents in Lake County are encouraged to speak at one of the upcoming meetings hosted by Lake County Stormwater Management Commission regarding flooding in Lake County, IL.

As you know, Lake County is experiencing stronger and more frequent rainfalls. To better protect its residents and businesses from this, the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission (SMC) is now re-evaluating its regulations for new developments. The Commission also seeks to share helpful information with a greater number of property owners, and hear their concerns and suggestions. 

Please speak at one of the upcoming meetings the Commission is hosting on this topic. If you want stronger protections from flooding, this is the time for elected officials to hear from you.

We encourage you to share your story of how flooding has impacted you, and ask for stronger flood protections designed to handle the future storms being projected for Lake County. Please take up to three minutes.

Tuesday, July 16 | 2pm
Highland Park City Hall
1707 St. Johns Ave, Highland Park, IL

Wednesday, July 24 | 10am
Barrington Village Hall 
200 S. Hough St, Barrington, IL

State Representative Sam Yingling and Lake County Board Member Terry Wilke are hosting a floodproofing and rainfall information meeting where Lake County SMC will be the presenting agency. 

Thursday, August 8 | 6pm
Round Lake High School (Theater) 
800 High School Drive, Round Lake, IL

Learn more…

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

Spring 2019 was one of the wettest ever in northern Illinois.  

The increased frequency of weather systems that cause sporadic, torrential storms are 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. The Governor declared a state of emergency.  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. 

Our region – everything from rural towns to densely populated urban areas, farmland, housing, routes of transportation, and schools – was not built to withstand the “new normal” of seasonal flooding. 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.

The increased intensity of rain is forcing us to rethink how we can design our communities to not flood.

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

Increases in rainfall prompted the Illinois State Water Survey to update Bulletin 70, which measures the frequency of rainfall and the intensity of rainstorms in Illinois. The Illinois State Water Survey found that infrastructure was up to 25 to 40% inadequate to handle current storms. Updating Bulletin 70 is important because it is the basis for engineers to size stormwater pipes, detention ponds, bridges above rivers and streams, nature-based solutions, and other infrastructure to handle expected rain and snowmelt. While this is a critical first step, it still leaves us vulnerable to climate change. It is critical to add the amount flooding will likely increase when building infrastructure to last over the next century. Otherwise, we are building to flood.

Photo: Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune

Over the last decade, agencies and communities have taken important steps towards requiring and incentivizing better stormwater solutions.  However, we know it isn’t enough.  For our region to be healthy, competitive and livable, it is essential to design lasting pipes, reservoirs and green infrastructure to accommodate our changing climate.  This means finding ways to systemize greater integration of green technology, such as permeable pavement, and natural features, such as rain gardens and trees, into public spaces. Nature-based solutions, combined with traditional infrastructure, can hold and slow substantial amounts of rain and snow melt to reduce the pressure on pipes when they are most full.  This can reduce basement backups and the amount that we release combined sewer overflows – sewage combined with rain – into our rivers and Lake Michigan.  Expanding and adequately maintaining both pipes and this “green infrastructure” means less damage, clearer streets, and cleaner water to drink, use and recreate in.

As our region continues to grow, more concrete and impervious surface will exacerbate the stress of climate change on our communities.  This pressure will demand, and hopefully inspire more, partnerships between agencies, communities, businesses and non-profits, to retrofit our communities with better technology.  Conscientious development and redevelopment won’t be enough.  We will need more programs, like Space to Grow, which transforms Chicago Public School campuses in disadvantaged neighborhoods that flood into vibrant green outdoor learning places that can hold upward of 750,000 gallons per storm event.  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.

Space to Grow and conservation practices on farmland are both great examples of how protecting existing landscapes can provide a multitude of ecosystems service benefits.  For example, restoring land to high quality prairie is proven to be an $8 to $1 return, mitigating flooding, sequestering carbon, and lowering temperatures in urban heat islands.  With increasing pressure to develop, it will be ever more important that our development and transportation infrastructure complements rather than erodes our finite open space. 

While good work is underway, we must step up our efforts to mitigate flooding and other climate change impacts for the sake of generation to come.

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.


This post was updated on July 12, 2019.

U.N. Report Highlights ‘Unprecedented’ Risk to Endangered Wildlife

On May 6, the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released their summary of an upcoming 1,500-page report on the state of biodiversity on Earth. The findings of the report are sobering and paint a bleak view for one million wildlife species now at risk of extinction due to human activity.  

A three-year study by the IPBES finds that nature is experiencing an ‘unprecedented’ decline. This decline threatens terrestrial and aquatic species — including birds, insects, amphibians, mammals, trees, plants, marine life, and terrestrial life — and erodes the social and economic foundations of human civilization. It also finds unequivocally that human activities are to blame, especially ones that drive land use change, species exploitation, climate change, pollution, and competition from invasive species.

Some especially astonishing facts revealed by this study include:

  • Three-fourths of the planet’s land-based habitat, and two-thirds of its ocean habitat, has been significantly altered by humans;
  • One-third of the planet’s land and three-fourths of its freshwater are used by agriculture; and
  • The footprint of urban areas more than doubled since 1992.

The report from the UN reminds us again that as a planet, our current efforts to protect nature are nowhere near enough. Without ‘transformational changes’, the situation will worsen.

But that doesn’t have to be our future.


Openlands believes that nature is vital to all humans, and so we have an obligation to sustain nature not only for its own sake but also for our own wellbeing. To counter these troubling global trends, Openlands acts regionally to advance changes that are models for transformations which safeguard our region’s wildlife, sustain human communities, and support a healthy equilibrium between them.

  • Forestry, clean water, and local food programs all provide education about our natural resources so that more residents of the Chicago region value and respect them.

And while we are leading the efforts to make our region the most livable region in the country, endangered wildlife is still facing threats today and needs your voice. Right now legislation in Springfield will undercut Illinois’ ability to protect its own endangered wildlife and instead defer critical decisions to the current Federal administration, an administration that’s made a point of showing its disregard for environmental protection.

Please ask your state legislators to reject this law that would prevent Illinois from protecting its own threatened and endangered species.


We are committed to keeping you informed of the latest news and how it impacts conservation in the Chicago region, and we need your help to keep pursuing the transformation changes needed to save our planet’s wildlife. We need your support now, more than ever, to sustain our work that connects people with nature in the Chicago region.

Photos: Bill Clow (top); Marty Hackl