Local Stormwater Management—Not Just a Matter of Volume

Large-scale change in complex systems never comes from the top down; it always bubbles up from the bottom. That means that large-scale social, political, and economic change comes from the citizenry, whom elected officials will follow when its collective voice becomes loud enough.
Tom Wessels. The Myth of Progress. [1]

Stormwater management in the Chicago area is generally seen as a problem of volume—what to do with all the water. This attitude arises from media coverage of street disruptions from flooding, and frequent testimonies of flooding damage to private residences. However volume is not the only problem, and media coverage of predictable seasonal flooding does nothing to educate the public about water-quality and other related environmental problems, or sustainable solutions.

         Stormwater problems illustrates the overarching problem of human beings trying to force the natural world to adapt to their needs rather than understanding and respecting ecological processes. Wetlands, for example, are a natural antidote to the flooding problem, provided that they remain undeveloped. They not only store excess stormwater, but they can also remediate it. Naturally occurring or ecologically-restored vegetation throughout a region also helps to manage stormwater. Trees, bushes, and indigenous plants with deep roots soak up excess water, and return it to the atmosphere through transpiration. When this vegetation is replaced by conventional lawns and paved surfaces ecological processes are disturbed. Manicured lawns also tend to be treated with chemical fertilizers and herbicides that seep into ground water or runoff, polluting rivers and lakes.

     Poor water quality in Lake Michigan means more energy is required to remediate lake water for drinking. This energy expenditure improves water quality but adds more chemicals to the water and further degrades the environment through remediation processes. As Tom Wessels explains in The Myth of Progress, the continuous clean up of degraded natural systems is a waste of natural capital and increases entropy in an already stressed environment. [2]  Though it is also possible to remediate water quality through natural processes, the vast majority of current water reclamation plants use traditional, energy-intensive methods.

     The continuing degradation of Great Lakes water is a large-scale and long-term environmental problem. Since access to drinking water is likely to become a cause of conflicts in the U. S. as well as abroad (in the near future), regional freshwater can no longer be treated as a free resource. Future food security issues and an increase in urban agriculture may also begin to stress freshwater supplies and production capacities, especially if populations begin migrating from water hotspots to the Great Lakes region to access fresh water for drinking and agriculture. [3]


     Urban ecologists foreground the importance of social, economic, and cultural conditions, and view hydrological problems as opportunities for improving urban life, increasing public awareness, and stimulating the economy. [4]  The problem is not just a lack of public education, however, but misinformation, as businesses, governments, and media outlets iterate outdated economic assumptions unrelated to scientific facts. As identified by The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), there is a pressing need for public education on environmental issues. [5] However this problem is a symptom of general scientific illiteracy and a lack of bioregional knowledge and identity. While CMAP recommends that local organizations become more involved in public education and outreach, such a “policy” diverts the responsibility for public education onto private organizations. Alternatively individuals should support policies to reform actual public educational systems.

   Large-scale, homogenous, energy-intensive solutions were the technologies that created today’s environmental problems. Conversely, sustainable solutions may lie in diverse, ground-up, local policies and programs, sparked by various community leaders and informed citizens cognizant of the big picture. Leadership need not begin and end with given political structures, processes, and agents, however. It can emerge in various professions and forms of community engagement. A paradigm shifting approach to environmental and economic problems may be dependant on new political perspectives—new political “technologies.”


[1] Wessels (2006), Chapter 3, “Personal and collective action,” paragraph 9

[2] Wessles (2006), Chapter 3, “Personal and collective action,” paragraph 2

[3] Scott C. A., Varady, R. G.,  Meza F, Montaña E., de Raga, G. B.,  Luckman B. & Martius C. (2012, May/June). “Science-Policy Dialogues for Water Security: Addressing Vulnerability and Adaptation to Global Change in the Arid Americas.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from http://www.environmentmagazine.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/2012/May-June%202012/Science-Policy-Full.html

[4]  Niemczynowicz, J. (1999) “Urban hydrology and water management—present and future challenges” Urban Water 1, 1-14.

[5] Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (n.d.). Stormwater management BMPS. Education.  Retrieved from http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/strategy-papers/stormwater-best-management-practices/education

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