Health

Harvey to pilot new market-based approach to stormwater management

In 2023, Harvey will begin piloting StormStore, which allows landowners to build needed stormwater management projects at a lower cost by generating credits and selling them to developers.

Rainwater sits on a portion of 154th Street in downtown Harvey following a heavy spring rain, shown April 4, 2022. The city will put sidewalk plantings along the corridor next year as it pilots a new stormwater management program. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
Rainwater sits on a portion of 154th Street in downtown Harvey following a heavy spring rain, shown April 4, 2022. The city will put sidewalk plantings along the corridor next year as it pilots a new stormwater management program. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

A new program leverages development activity to increase stormwater management projects in areas prone to flooding.

StormStore allows landowners to generate credits by implementing green stormwater infrastructure projects, which mimic the natural environment and catch rainwater where it falls, reducing urban flooding. Developers can then purchase credits, offsetting costs associated with local stormwater requirements while helping landowners recoup project expenses.

Harvey is the latest city to pilot the market-based approach to stormwater management, placing sidewalk plantings along a three-quarter mile stretch of 154th Street in the downtown area in 2023. The project is currently in the design phase.

Most of our communities in Cook County were originally built before we had significant stormwater infrastructure requirements,” said John Legge, the Chicago conservation director at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group involved with the effort, in an email to the HWH.“Now, many communities in Cook County have significant problems with excess stormwater that are only going to increase with climate change.”

Harvey’s sewer system is around 200 years old, and basement flooding is a recurring problem for residents after heavy rainfalls.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, responsible for treating waste and reducing flooding across the area, requires developers to manage stormwater runoff when building or redeveloping a property. That, and grants, are how many resilience projects are funded, Legge said. “But, grant funds are limited.”

The MWRD is now allowing developers to meet stormwater requirements using offsite facilities.

Say a developer wants to build housing or a commercial property near a transit system, but the site’s shape or other challenges make meeting stormwater requirements more difficult or costly. So, they purchase credits generated from another project elsewhere. That puts them in compliance with the MWRD’s ordinance, allows their development to move forward, and effectively helps a landowner lower stormwater management costs.

“You get this development here, and maybe this other place that needs more stormwater infrastructure is getting that infrastructure that they need,” particularly, “if this other place isn’t having a high demand for new development,” said Justin Keller, Manager at the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonpartisan agency working in partnership with TNC to engage developers and communities about StormStore’s benefits.

There’s a focus on the Lower Des Plaines and Little Calumet River watershed areas.“Because new stormwater infrastructure is mostly built in conjunction with new development or redevelopment,” Legge said, “communities that are seeing less new development projects lose out on the associated stormwater infrastructure.”

A map of the focus areas. The Des Plaines River watershed is pictured in green. The Little Calumet River watershed is pictured in red. Courtesy of the Nature Conservancy via the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
A map of the focus areas. The Des Plaines River watershed is pictured in green. The Little Calumet River watershed is pictured in red. Courtesy of the Nature Conservancy via the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District

StormStore could also provide a new revenue stream for cash-strapped cities looking to become more sustainable.

Each credit equals one acre of stormwater detention or storage. A 2017 feasibility study estimated that Cook County landowners could generate over $240,000 for every five projects selling their credits.

The MWRD will track sales.

Street bumpouts like this one shown in Elyria, Ohio, capture stormwater from the streets. Vegetation then soaks up the stormwater. Provided by the Nature Conservancy
Street bumpouts like this one shown in Elyria, Ohio, capture stormwater from the streets. Vegetation then soaks up the stormwater. Provided by the Nature Conservancy

Similar stormwater credit trading programs have launched in Washington, D.C. Currently, Riverdale, River Forest, Franklin Park, and Niles are modeling StormStore.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, infrastructure like roads or buildings trap heat and create hotter temperatures as opposed to the natural environments. But, for some, business interests can conflict with climate goals. A project that’s environmentally beneficial for the community may not yield great financial returns for a city or developer.

Or issues like public safety have higher priority on the list of needs, Keller said. And, for financially constrained communities, the upfront costs of more plant-based projects are more expensive, Keller said—even if they have more benefits in the long-run. “It takes more attention until everything is established and working properly as opposed to a concrete pipe. You set the pipe and you move on to the next thing.”

That’s the catch with StormStore. “Funding from a stormwater trade isn’t available up-front, but only after a project is built,” Legge said.

So, landowners like cities, schools, or churches in financially constrained communities—those more prone to flooding—will still have to finance projects before they can generate credits for them. In collaboration with nonprofits National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chi-Cal Rivers Fund and the Grand Victoria Foundation, TNC launched the Opportunity Fund to assist cities, including Harvey, with those initial costs.

Legge said there's a plan to circulate funding to help other communities in need of green stormwater management as Harvey pilots StormStore.

“Once Harvey’s project makes a stormwater trade, some funds will return to the Opportunity Fund to support another green stormwater project for another Cook County community.”

Sometimes forces like disinvestment or outmigration can make environmentally friendly projects harder to spearhead, said Bill Schleizer, Chief Executive Officer of Delta Institute, which works with communities across the Midwest on sustainability and environmental resiliency projects.

That demands new thinking about ways environment improvements can create economic opportunities, Schleizer said. For instance, brownfield or green stormwater infrastructure training could translate to a job with a local park district, he said.

“This is one of the things that we want to always make sure happens in our projects—that the local community is the beneficiary of all the gains,” Schleizer said.

Other times the issue is staffing shortages or lack of knowledge.

Delta developed a guide for implementing projects that reduce flooding after some community leaders expressed concerns over limitations to greening their cities.

Delta staff try to understand the history of a community and support current grassroots efforts, Schleizer said, to move away from “traditional business models because that can lead you down the wrong way, where you’re just focused on return on investment instead of return on impact.”

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