Following the Chicago region’s third straight wettest May on record, communities are grappling with how to address increasingly frequent and costly urban flooding. From private property owners to state leadership, the reality is that everyone can and must play a role. That’s why in May the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC) updated an ordinance that enables an innovative new tool to help manage stormwater in Cook County while benefiting property owners and encouraging economic development.
Under MWRD’s current Watershed Management Ordinance, developers of public or private properties in Cook County are required to manage a certain amount of rainfall on their site. Typically that means adding detention ponds, green roofs, or porous pavers to prevent rain from flowing from hard surfaces, such as roofs and sidewalks, directly into storm sewers or local creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes. Rain runoff carries pollutants into our water supply, and can quickly overwhelm the sewer system, leading to an increase in flooding.
However, not all development sites can accommodate these requirements because of their size, geography, location or other limitations. That’s why MWRD updated the ordinance, to allow landowners in southeast Cook County—located in the Little Calumet watershed planning area—and in west Cook County—located in the Lower Des Plaines watershed planning area—to creatively trade stormwater detention and volume control credits with other property owners (within that watershed) in the marketplace.
This new approach gives developers greater flexibility to build projects and meet stormwater management requirements. Here’s how it works: A developer of a site can buy credits from another property owner who has more than enough capacity and is interested in putting stormwater solutions on their property. Specifications for participating in the program are available on MWRD’s website, which also will provide a running list of available supply sites.
This will place stormwater management tools across each watershed, while providing developers with added incentives to get new developments off the ground and create much-needed jobs. In a down economy, buying credits can be a helpful way to generate some of the capital needed to jumpstart a project.
Of all the stormwater permits in Cook County between 2006-2016, one in five developments would have benefited from stormwater trading, with an average economic benefit per project of $240,645.
This stormwater credit exchange called StormStore, which will be managed by the Metropolitan Planning Council and The Nature Conservancy, is also a way to ensure equitable distribution of flooding solutions. Most flood-prone neighborhoods also tend to be those with low development activity. StormStore is an inclusive economic development tool that will unlock infill and redevelopment opportunities that could (or will) improve resiliency in communities that need it most.
Stormwater credit trading also has the potential to lower the cost of addressing urban flooding by distributing those costs across public and private landowners. Suppliers can use some of the revenue generated by trades to help maintain those stormwater controls over the long-term or reinvest those funds in other priorities. Additionally, buying credits can be a more affordable way for developers to meet stormwater requirements.
At this crucial time when many people are continuing to stay home, it is critical that we prevent costly and unsanitary flooding. In a down economy, developers need creative tools to get projects off the ground. MWRD’s innovative new tool checks many boxes; financing equitable economic development across our region, increasing flexibility for developers, lowering the cost addressing flooding, and making communities safer, more attractive, and more resilient.
Kimberly Neely Du Buclet is the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago