The proposed storm sewer project for Wilmette’s westside has generated a lot of debate and confusion. It’s important to sift through the all the information to make a good 100-year infrastructure decision.
The latest Wilmette Village Board meeting on the storm sewers narrowed the potential solutions down to three options, including Option 1: Relief Sewers. For a comparison of each, along with maps showing which neighborhoods would (or would not) be protected, see our post on the Final Storm Sewer Options.
This post is my attempt to clarify the issues, with more background information, and the reasons why I believe Option 1 is the best solution. I’ve cited engineering studies and sources when possible.
(Dump an entire 10-gallon bucket of water down your kitchen sink, in one big whoosh, and you’ll get the picture of what happens when rainstorms hit the undersized storm sewers.)
The existing pumping station (located at the river to “boost” flow) already has capacity for this upgrade, but minor improvements will ensure service is not lost during storms. (Currently, the pumps are operating at only 50 percent capacity, even during our worst storms. Option 1 will double the peak rate.)
However, that number doesn’t tell the whole story. It only examines the 700 homes guaranteed to flood up to, or into, doorsills, during “100-year” storms. In reality, many more homes experience damage much more frequently, during “10-year” storms, when flood water rises midway up the property, saturating the ground.
For these frequently flooding properties, Option 1 provides a solution, by draining the entire westside for up to “10-year” storms. In other words, frequently flooding properties would experience significant relief with the Option 1 Relief Sewers. (This chart from the 2017 Value Study provides a comprehensive cost/benefit analysis for westside protected properties.)
In addition, investing in storm sewers can reduce the severity and duration of flooding during all storms, prevent sickness from mold and bacteria, reduce the loss of work hours to deal with flooding, reduce stormwater infiltration and backups in the sanitary system, and cut down on degradation of roadways, sidewalks, and other infrastructure maintained by the village. Thus it’s not true that the cost per unit of benefit is $227K.
When it floods, the discharge spots for sump pumps and detention tanks get submerged (in other words, the place where the water is supposed to come out is itself underwater), rendering these expensive floodproofing systems useless. Stormwater pours over door sills and through low-level windows. Season after season of high groundwater attacks cement foundations.
Even if buyouts were an option, it would be more expensive to acquire properties than to simply fix the sewers. For example, Option 1 gives 120 homes complete protection from 10-year floods at a cost of $80M-$95M, or less, and also provides some protection for more than 700 homes. The average Wilmette home value is $629K. So buying 120 homes would cost $75M, or 700 homes would cost $440M. Also, tearing down homes eliminates tax revenue from the properties. It seems clear that property acquisition would be more expensive than investing in the sewers.
Consulting engineers analyzed and reported on green solutions as part of overall stormwater analysis, finding that the expected “green” impact is low or implementation not feasible in some areas of the westside.
For example, detaining runoff from an average westside home, for a moderate storm, would likely require 60 rain barrels, which is not a solution. Engineers also looked at local storage areas, to serve as detention ponds, but Wilmette has very little undeveloped green space. In addition, the ponds require grey infrastructure to direct runoff into them, and drainage time is required to recharge after each storm.
Engineers recommended setting up rain gardens, but many areas of the westside have low-infiltration clay soils, and the impact would be highest for mild rainfall, not intense storms. A recent Stantec engineering report on green infrastructure options found that permeable pavers could be a worthwhile possibility in some areas, but impact on flood levels would be limited.
For example, in a 2009 email, past Wilmette President Chris Canning acknowledged ongoing complaints from residents about westside flooding and property damage (caused by storms in 2007, 2008, and 2009). He explained that the westside storm sewer system is “self restricting because of the finite capacity,” and promised the village would look into it. Since then, Wilmette taxpayers have funded more than three major engineering studies. The board reviewed the issues and proposals for too many hours to count.
During the past decade, Wilmette taxpayers have spent more than $859K (in today’s dollars) for extensive engineering studies on westside stormwater management and sewers.
Check it out:
2009-2010 Separate Sewer Study: Provided a big picture of westside flooding and sanitary/storm sewer issues, including lack of westside storm sewer capacity. The proposed solutions included adding a new westside storm trunk and additional storm sewer pipes.
2013 Sewer Flow Monitoring Study: Focused on the sanitary sewer, but also mentioned “storm sewer‐to‐sanitary sewer cross connections.” Provided preliminary research for the West Park storage tank.
January 2015 Separate Storm Sewer Study: Engineers created hydraulic/hydrologic models to analyze westside flooding and sewer problems, using geographic information system (GIS) mapping, land elevation data, sewer maps, and rainfall data. The models were calibrated using sewer flow metering, and residents’ reports on flooding. Based on the models, engineers proposed three solutions, including the Option 1 Relief Sewer Project.
April 2015 Follow Up Study: Looked for cheaper alternatives to Options 1, 2, 3, like using smaller sewer pipes or substituting detention ponds, but found that Options 1b, 2b, and 3c were not more cost-effective or feasible than Option 1, which attacked the root cause (inadequate storm sewer pipes).
2017 Value Study: Confirmed that the Option 1 Relief Sewer project is a sound solution. The final presentation at Wilmette Village Hall on September 25 will include research on construction efficiencies.
As part of the current “value” study, Stantec engineers may identify some cost savings (e.g., digging instead of tunneling in some sections, or using prefab junctions instead of making junctions on-site).
Wilmette President Bob Bielinski asked Darren Olson of Christopher B Burke Engineering if Option 1 is a prerequisite for other improvements (like rain gardens or home flood control), and the answer was: “Absolutely!”
You almost never hear an engineer say anything is “absolutely” necessary, but in this case, better drainage is a basic requirement for effective stormwater management.
Meanwhile, as the slow decision-making process drags on, westsiders have continued to pay for flood damage with every big rainstorm.
Nonetheless, the Village of Wilmette has conducted a three-month educational and outreach campaign, including numerous online and in-person opportunities for residents to ask questions about stormwater management and voice opinions about upgrade options, thus providing more access for public input than a single referendum would offer.
Finding the Funds
Likewise, the entire village is paying, via sewer fees, for the West Park Storage tank, which helps prevent sanitary sewer backups, west of Romona Road.
Eastside sewer infrastructure has been upgraded to provide a minimum of 10-year storm protection, the same standards should apply to the westside.
For example, Stantec engineers estimate that the average annual sewer fee would increase $46 for every $10M in debt issued. Wilmette Finance Director Melinda Molloy said the village could ramp up borrowing, as the project is phased in. At the high-end, by 2047, the average annual sewer fees would have a peak average increase of $514, then the 30-year General Obligation Debt would be paid off.
Here are some other options that municipalities use to fund sewer projects:
Storm Utility Fees: Developers and property owners pay fees based on the percentage of impermeable land on a property. This has the advantage of discouraging development that adds to stormwater management problems, while encouraging creative solutions. Communities like Downers Grove are using these fees.
The MWRD: The county sewage district might help fund a new storm trunk, which is the main pipe to the river, as an MWRD Stormwater Management Phase 2 project. (See examples of past investments on page 7 of this MWRD document.) Historically, the MWRD has funded about 50 percent of proposals, possibly at $100K to $1M level. To get a chance to receive funds, an application would be due by February 16, 2018. The Wilmette Village Board would need to speed up their decision-making process to meet the deadline.
IDOT/MFT: Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) manages the Motor Fuel Tax (MFT), which we all pay at the gas pump. The funds help pay for roadway improvements, like storm sewer drainage pipes, to bring roads up to standard. For westside Wilmette, the standard should be 10-year storm protection (as explained in the BLR manual section 38-2.02). Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP) could provide up to $2M funding per project.
ILEPA: There is an extremely slim possibility that Wilmette could get EPA funding, but we would have to prove the project helps keep local waterways cleaner — a tough sell. Currently, stormwater infiltrates the sanitary sewers, overwhelming the treatment plants and causing sanitary backups. But we don’t have exact data on the reduction in stormwater infiltration that Option 1 would provide.
Why is Option 1 Relief Sewers our best investment?
In contrast, Option 4 Neighborhood Storage can’t be expanded, due to a lack of additional vacant storage space. Also, Option 4 does not include a new storm trunk (pipe) to carry runoff to the river, so it wouldn’t support an expanded network of storm sewer pipes.
Likewise, Option 2 Relief Sewers + Neighborhood Storage lacks a full-sized trunk to convey stormwater to the pump station and river, so it would be difficult and costly to upgrade the entire westside to a 10-year standard, sometime in the future.
Voice your opinion to Wilmette village trustees at firstname.lastname@example.org.