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Locals Find A Green Solution To Flooding With Rain Gardens And Rain Barrels

By Andrea V. Watson | October 3, 2016 6:00am | Updated on October 7, 2016 11:26am
 Tonarreo King works on a rain garden at Advocate United Church of Christ.
Tonarreo King works on a rain garden at Advocate United Church of Christ.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

EAST SIDE — With the help of both the city and a local organization, a few communities have found resourceful ways to prevent basements from flooding and sewers from overflowing.

A green sustainability initiative has been happening on the South Side thanks to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and nonprofit Faith in Place. The organization aims to inspire people to care for the earth through four areas: energy and climate change; sustainable food and land use; water preservation; and advocacy, outreach coordinator Ramont Bell said.

“We’re taking 1.5 million gallons of water out of the stormwater system, and if we can keep the project going this can actually be a huge advantage,” he said. “It won’t solve the problem but we’re going to assist greatly.”

Andrea Watson details the rain diversion program.

Bell’s organization is helping install rain gardens and distributing rain barrels at five churches on the South and West sides. They include The New Mission Temple Church of God in Christ, Greenstone United Methodist Church, St. Bride Church, Advocate United Church and New Life Church Southeast. They are located in high-ranked flooding areas, Bell said.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology, a group that focuses on urban sustainability, said urban flooding “occurs when rain overwhelms drainage systems and waterways and makes its way into the basements, backyards and streets of homes, businesses and other properties.”

Stormwater has several ways to flood a property: overflow from rivers and streams, sewage pipe backup into buildings and seepage through building wall and floors, and the accumulation of stormwater on property and in public property.

Urban flooding in Cook County is a “chronic and systemic” problem, according to the group’s 2014 report.

More than 181,000 claims were made in 97 percent of Cook County ZIP codes in the last five years. Seventy percent of online survey respondents estimate that they had flooding three or more times in the last five years, 20 percent had flooding 10 or more times.                       

Five rain gardens were installed this year by Faith in Place with a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Greenstone United Methodist Church in the West Pullman neighborhood had a rain garden designed. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

All of the churches involved are either in the process of building a rain garden or already have one. The way a rain garden works is the downspout carries water from the gutter into the ground, so water is diverted to the garden instead of into the sewer system.

“This water is great for your plants,” Bell said. “It doesn’t have the fluoride or chlorine in it, and plants like this water better than they like the water that comes out of the faucet.”

The community gardens have dual roles; stop flooding and beautify the community.

“We’re trying to bring a little nature to an urban setting,” Bell said.

A garden at Advocate United Church of Christ, 10259 S. Avenue L, will have a bird feeder, perennials, a tree and sitting stones when it’s completed. Bell said it will be a nice place to meditate and take in nature. 

The Rev. Luther Mason, pastor at Greenstone United Methodist Church in West Pullman, had a rain garden designed on the side of his church. He said he really likes the initiative.

“When Ramont approached me about the rain garden project…, I said it sounds like a winner to me,” he said. “The garden enhances the church. I can't wait for it to fully be in bloom in another year because the garden will be full of birds and bees.”

All landscaping and rain garden installation is done by High Bridge, a group that gives ex-offenders meaningful work.

Tonarreo King (left) and Shawn Smith work for High Bridge. They installed a bird feeder at Advocate United Church of Christ. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

Tonarreo King has been with High Bridge since last year.

“There was no job in sight for me at all,” King said about his job hunt before joining the program.

“After incarceration, it’s pretty hard to come out and get a job and people really don’t want to give you that chance,” King said.

He said he enjoys working in the gardens and he quickly fell “in love” with the work.

King works with Shawn Smith, who said he experienced the same problem finding a job, and likes what he does.

“Our boss tells us the game plan, so we then try to get a vision and then tackle it,” Smith said.

Besides rain gardens, the second part to the initiative is installing rain barrels.

A rain barrel collects runoff water. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

Homeowners can use water collected to wash their car or water their lawn. Rain barrel water is naturally free of chlorine, lime and calcium, according the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's website.

Commissioner Kari K. Steele said the rain barrel program is in its second year, and so far the agency has distributed more than 72,000 barrels. The installation is fairly simple, she said.

Commissioner Kari K. Steele (left) with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District [Provided photo/Faith in Place]

One reason more residents are experiencing flooding in their basements is because of climate change, Steele said.

“Climate change is real and we’re experiencing more heavy downpours than usual and more heavy rains than we have in the past,” she said. “If it’s a heavy downpour, then that’s a lot of water going into our sewer system at one time.”

What her department and Faith in Place are doing is offering a solution to the problem.

“They’re bringing awareness about green infrastructure to an urban setting which is so important right now because the climate is changing and we’re growing as a city,” Steele said.

Each rain barrel holds 55 gallons of water, so in one rainy season a rain barrel is diverting 3,270 gallons of runoff water, she said.

“That’s gallons of water that we’re keeping out of the sewer system at one time, so that definitely can help decrease the amount of basement backups,” she said.

The city isn’t necessarily saving money, Steele said, but it’s the homeowners benefiting from using the rain barrel or living in an area with a rain garden.

“I feel like this is something everyone should take advantage of,” she said.

The program ends in December. For more information visit www.mwrd.org or contact Steele's office at 312-751-5695.

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