CHICAGO — Record-setting rainfall has put a strain on the area’s waterways, prompting officials to urge Chicagoans — many of whom are still dealing with basement cleanup and sewage backup in their homes — to limit their water use.
Chicagoans can help reduce the amount of water that’s currently overwhelming the system by limiting their use of water-dependent appliances, among other things, according to officials at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the Department of Water Management.
“Don’t run the dishwasher, don’t wash your clothes, shorten your baths and showers,” said Allison Fore, a spokesperson at the Reclamation District. “We want to keep as much water out of the system as possible. When you flush your toilet, that water goes into the same pipes that are collecting all the stormwater and getting overloaded with rain.”
Between five and six inches of rain covered the city Sunday, with 24-hour rainfall totals of up to nine inches on the West Side and in the western suburbs. Flash-flood warnings were in effect across the city for most of the day and more than a thousand people reported flooding in their homes and businesses.
“We were watching the radar and the storm system was just sitting over the West Side, almost circling it and it just kept dumping water,” said Ed Staudacher, assistant director of maintenance and operations at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
“It was just too much water for the system to handle.”
To release some of the excess water, officials reversed the flow of the Chicago River by opening the locks so water could escape into Lake Michigan for a few hours both on Sunday and Monday, according to a news release.
The last time officials did this was in May 2020, Staudacher said.
Staudacher said the decision to open the locks isn’t something officials “take lightly” because water from the Chicago River pollutes Lake Michigan, which is the city’s source of drinking water. This is necessary in “extreme situations,” according to the news release.
Officials only reverse the flow of the river when “protecting the health and safety of the public” from intense flooding outweighs the risks of polluting the waterways, according to Staudacher.
“If the water throughout the region’s waterways keeps going up, it’s going to start spilling into the banks of the canals and rivers,” Staudacher said. “In order to protect everybody from more flooding, we opened the locks to let the water out into Lake Michigan to relieve the entire system and get it under control.”
Reversing the flow helps to regulate the entire 76 miles of waterways throughout the region and prevented further flooding, Staudacher said.
To prevent any harm to the public’s drinking water, officials at the Water Reclamation District worked with utility companies to ensure they drew water from farther out in the lake from areas that weren’t impacted by the river water’s reversed flow, Staudacher said.
Normally, excess rainwater flows through the waterways into the sewers, then travels through 109 miles of deep tunnels that drop the water in giant underground reservoirs.
But water from storms this past week exceeded the system’s capacity and started stacking up in the Chicago River and in the Calumet-Saganashkee Channel, Staudacher said.
“The problem is that our systems aren’t made to convey an extra nine inches of water over a short period of time,” Staudacher said. “Once the water system is full, the water stacks up and floods into the streets and basements and everywhere else.”
Chicagoans can call 311 to report flooding in their homes and businesses.
The city of Chicago received nearly 1,500 flooded basement complaints through its online 311 service requests map in the days following Sunday’s storm. Complaints were concentrated on the West and Northwest Side neighborhoods of West Garfield Park, Austin, Belmont Cragin and Portage Park.
The Department of Water Management deployed 122 members of its staff to the areas hit hardest by Sunday’s storms, a spokesperson said.
Staudacher said people should disconnect their gutters’ downspouts so that the water running off their roofs doesn’t flow into the overwhelmed sewer systems and cause further flooding.
When the sewers are full, the water has nowhere to go except people’s basements, according to Chicago’s 311 website.
Flood water can be contaminated with fecal material from the sewage systems, so it’s important to wear protective clothing such as boots, rubber gloves and long-sleeved shirts while cleaning it up, according to a flooding guide from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
People should wash their hands frequently when dealing with flood water and avoid eating any food that may have come in contact with the water, according to the guide. Anything that flood water touched should be thrown away unless you can thoroughly clean and fully dry the items.
In order to help prevent flooding in the future, Staudacher said people can use rain barrels to collect water and reuse it. Staudacher also recommended people invest in infrastructure that absorbs water into the ground, rather than systems that send excess water into overwhelmed sewers.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is working on a project that would expand the region’s overflow reservoirs so they’ll eventually be able to hold a total of 17.5 billion gallons of water. This would help prevent sewers from overflowing in the future, Staudacher said.
The region’s treatment system and overflow water storage held about 6 billion gallons of water during this week’s storms, Staudacher said.
The project is scheduled to be completed in 2029, according to the district’s website.
“There’s a lot that can be done, but everyone has to do their part in this,” Staudacher said.
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