Rainstorms dumped more than 5 inches of water in 24 hours on the Chicago area earlier this month, forcing the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to open the locks where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan for the first time since June 2015.
As a result, the river, filled with storm runoff and sewage, began flowing into Lake Michigan. According to the MWRD, as little as a third of an inch of rain can cause a combined sewer overflow, a mixture of rainwater and sewage that spills into the river and other waterways.
“Most people think that [flooding] is kind of beyond them,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s raining. What will I be able to do to stop flooding?’ But you can actually make a difference.”
Last year, Friends launched the Overflow Action Days initiative to encourage residents to use less water at home when forecasts predict significant rain, thereby giving sewers more capacity to handle the rain.
Based on the model of Air Pollution Action Days or similarly named efforts, Overflow Action lets users sign up for email alerts that include water conservation reminders before and during rain events. Water-saving actions include delaying showers or reducing the length of showers, flushing less frequently and waiting to run the dishwasher. Residents can also pledge to conserve a specific number of gallons of water per day during action days.
The group offers additional tips for conserving water that it says can help you save 20 gallons per day:
- Install a low-flow showerhead, which can save the average household nearly 3,000 gallons per year.
- Instead of washing dishes by hand or using a dishwasher for just a few dishes, run a full load of dishes in a dishwasher and save up to 20 gallons of water.
- Replace old faucets and showerheads with more efficient ones. This could save the average household up to 700 gallons in a year.
- Turn off your faucet when you aren’t using it, i.e. while brushing your teeth or washing your face.
Despite water quality improvements through wastewater treatment and MWRD’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the Chicago River remains subject to sewer overflows and stormwater runoffs, particularly during major rain events.
“We want to build awareness that people can impact the river, that we’re all connected to it no matter where we live,” Frisbie said. “We can make a personal commitment where we work together to reduce what goes into the sewer system, which reduces the chance of overflows.”
For example, Frisbie said, a co-worker’s basement used to flood even during moderate rainfalls, so he took a number of steps to make his home less vulnerable to flooding, such as planting native plants and disconnecting downspouts from the sewer system. Now his basement never floods, Frisbie said.
In addition to partnerships with MWRD and other Chicago organizations, Frisbie said the Friends are looking to partner with an area university to test its Overflow Action initiative at a dormitory, where students would be encouraged to conserve water during rain events.
Note: This story was originally published Oct. 24.
Oct. 16: Chicago’s sewer and deep tunnel system couldn’t handle this weekend’s rain, allowing untreated sewage and stormwater into Lake Michigan.
Sept. 5: After heavy storms, the Chicago River’s North Branch floods hundreds of homes on the Northwest Side. The Chicago Department of Transportation is now constructing a permanent flood-fighting weapon. We take a look.
Aug. 28: A grand canyon that will become a deep lake: We get a tour of the final reservoir in the Deep Tunnel plan.