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Flood Watch: Forecast Says River Won't Run Wild But City Takes Precautions

By Patty Wetli | February 20, 2014 8:11am | Updated on February 20, 2014 11:39am
 Between melting snow and ice and falling rain, all eyes are on the flood-prone Chicago River.
Chicago River Flood Watch
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ALBANY PARK — Melting snow and ice have turned the city's streets and sidewalks into lakes. With rain falling Thursday, residents can only wonder how all this added water will affect the Chicago River.

"We'll be watching closely," said Tom Powers, water management commissioner.

The Chicago River has overflowed its banks three times in the last five years, mostly recently cresting at a record high 8.85 feet in April 2013, when some families in Albany Park were evacuated from their homes by boat and the area eventually qualified for federal disaster aid.

The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch for the region through Thursday afternoon, warning that "localized flooding is also possible in area streams, creeks and rivers."

Powers, who spent Wednesday in Albany Park, noted that at that time the Chicago River's level had barely topped 2 feet, just a half-foot above its normal measurement, "and we've had two good days of thaw."

Water had risen to 2.62 feet by 7 a.m. Thursday as the river, iced over and snowed under as recently as Tuesday, began flowing more freely.

A Weather Service forecast for the river — measured at Albany Avenue — initially showed a 10 percent to 50 percent chance of the water reaching 4 feet in the coming week, based on simulations run Jan. 20.

An updated forecast was issued at 11:10 a.m. Thursday, predicting a crest of 4.8 feet on Friday. Flood stage is 7 feet.

Conditions in northern Cook and Lake counties will affect the river's levels as much as whatever weather strikes the city, said Allison Fore, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

"The more rain in the north, the more runoff into the north branch of the Chicago River," Fore said via email. "The amount of rain and snow melt that will become runoff will vary based on how quickly the snow melts and the intensity of the rain."

To help minimize flooding, Fore said the reclamation district  has lowered the level of the Chicago Area Waterways System by letting more water out of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

"Our Deep Tunnel is in service and has already received flow," Allison Fore, a reclamation district spokeswoman, said Thursday morning.

The mainstream tunnel has received the most water in the tunnel system and is about 38 percent full. The Des Plaines Tunnel is about 22 percent full and the Calumet Tunnel is 13 percent full. The entire tunnel system can hold up to 2.3 billion gallons of water when full. A reservoir near O'Hare that can hold 354 million gallons was empty Thursday morning, Fore said.

The reclamation district also encouraged the public to minimize the use of water during the rain storm, postponing "high water-consumption activities" like bathing, doing laundry or washing dishes, to help ease the strain on the sewer systems.

Powers said the city is also taking precautions in anticipation of possible flooding.

Flood barriers and sandbags have been staged at North Park Village, he said, and as a result equipment can be mobilized faster than in April. A number of barriers were left in place after last year's flooding, specifically on Foster and Lawndale avenues.

Saying he was "confident" the city was prepared to respond to an overflowing river, Powers added, "Nothing's for sure."

Even if the river stays within its banks, Albany Park, like neighborhoods across the city, remains at risk for flooding should the sewer system become overwhelmed.

Crews have been working to clear the city's catch basins, but with 250,000 drains to free, Powers called on the public to lend a hand.

"Take a shovel, take a rake so the water will have some place to go," he said.

To track the level of the Chicago River, visit the National Weather Service online or the U.S. Geological Survey's website.

Contributing: Josh McGhee