Federal and state authorities today unveiled a legal settlement intended to finally complete the Deep Tunnel, the Chicago region’s massive flood- and pollution-control project.
Relief from swamped basements and sewage overflows still is years away, however.
The deal brokered by the U.S. and Illinois Environmental Protection Agencies and U.S. Department of Justice formalizes deadlines to finish sections of the Deep Tunnel, but the entire system won’t be completed until 2029.
Most of the settlement adds legal teeth to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s latest construction schedule for the Deep Tunnel, which has been repeatedly delayed by funding woes and engineering hurdles. Officials broke ground on one of the nation’s most expensive public works projects nearly 40 years ago.
While the water reclamation district keeps working on two massive flood-control reservoirs, it will also be required to invest in more small-scale “green infrastructure” projects that allow storm runoff to seep into the ground rather than drain into sewers.
Local officials once scoffed at the idea, now considered critical for a city built on a swamp. Under the settlement, if the district misses deadlines for completing portions of the Deep Tunnel reservoirs, it must build more rain gardens, green roofs, pervious pavement and other projects to sop up stormwater.
“Combining innovative stormwater management practices, like rain gardens, with necessary infrastructure overhauls will protect peoples’ health and provide area residents with improved recreational opportunities,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Environmental groups that sued for improvements were more cautious.
They called the required green infrastructure projects limited compared with the scope of the region’s flooding problems and lamented that it still will take decades to finish the Deep Tunnel.
Like many older cities, Chicago long ago built sewers that combine waste from homes and factories with storm runoff. When it rains, neighborhood sewers quickly fill up and spill into local streams through overflow pipes.
If waterways are saturated to capacity, locks and gates to Lake Michigan are opened to curb flooding of streets and basements.
Deep Tunnel was supposed to fix the problem. But the Tribune reported in March that billions of gallons of bacteria-laden sewage and runoff still routinely pour into the Chicago River and suburban waterways during and after storms.
Lake Michigan, long considered the sewage outlet of last resort, has been hit harder during the past four years than it was in the previous two decades combined.
Taxpayers already have spent $3.3 billion on the Deep Tunnel. The first section, a 130-mile labyrinth of giant tunnels, went online in 2006 and was designed specifically to “eliminate waterway pollution.” But while building the project, district officials realized they would need to rely more on flood-control reservoirs at the end of the tunnels.
District officials say Chicago’s system will improve once a reservoir in south suburban Thornton is completed in 2015.
Another reservoir in southwest suburban McCook – 11 times larger than Soldier Field – will store floodwater from an area that stretches from Wilmette through Chicago to Cook County’s southwest suburbs. Part of the converted quarry is scheduled to be done by 2017, and the settlement requires the entire project to be completed by 2029.
Once the entire system is working, “the region will be proud of the work that is done to provide protection from flooding and improve water quality,” said David St. Pierre, the district’s new executive director.
In a statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office called the legal settlement “another important step toward cleaning up the river and restoring it as a recreational frontier for Chicago families.”
The settlement comes seven months after the EPA ordered the district to make stretches of the Chicago River, Little Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel safer for recreation. To meet that goal, two of the districts sewage treatment plants must be upgraded to kill disease-causing bacteria, something most other cities already do.
Completing the Deep Tunnel and overhauling the treatment plants could cost the average Cook County homeowner less than $7 a month, according to EPA estimates.
The amount likely will be less, agency officials said, since most of the district’s big sewer projects are funded with substantial federal support.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun