What flood control projects did to stem tide of stormwaters
There's little that can be done to completely prevent flooding in the suburbs, experts say, especially when there's a ferocity and frequency of storms like the ones that have ravaged the northern suburbs this month.
But were it not for millions of dollars worth of flood control infrastructure that's been built in recent years, they say, things could have been a lot worse.
From the construction of reservoirs and levees to the demolition of flood-prone structures, government agencies responsible for stormwater management have implemented a number of projects designed to lessen the impact of flooding.
Those projects served their intended purpose after the recent storms, officials say, though additional projects that are still waiting for funding could have mitigated the flooding even more.
Levee 37, a 2-mile-long flood protection wall along River Road in Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights, passed its first major test since being completed in September 2015. The $36 million project, built with mostly federal funds, works in tandem with a 100-acre water storage reservoir just to the north at Heritage Park in Wheeling that was built about the same time for $33.5 million, mostly with funds from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
The recent storms caused the nearby Des Plaines River to crest at a near-record level, but the levee wall -- 8 feet tall in some spots -- prevented the river from overflowing into neighborhoods to the west.
That's a different story from the floods of 1986 and 1987 when the river reached similar heights and hundreds of homes and businesses were left under water.
"It's a great success story," Mount Prospect village engineer Jeff Wulbecker said of the levee. "It saved hundreds of properties."
Levee 50, completed in 2008 near downtown Des Plaines, also performed as expected, officials say, though proposed flood control projects could help keep other parts of town dry.
In Lake County -- one of the areas hardest hit by recent floods -- one spot that didn't flood was the North Libertyville Estates subdivision, where a 5-foot-high, milelong earthen levee was built in 1997. In fact, officials say the subdivision has remained dry during other major storms over the past two decades.
While DuPage County was spared from major flooding in the recent storms, properties near Salt Creek had been frequently targeted by stormwaters for years until installation of a reservoir at a former Elmhurst quarry in 1996. At least 75 percent of the quarry's 2.7 billion gallon capacity has been used during five storms. In 2008, it was filled to the brim, according to Anthony Charlton, the county's director of stormwater management.
Despite recent flooding throughout the Fox Valley, there aren't levees along the Fox River or any reservoirs nearby. Instead, during large flood events, hinged crest gates at the Stratton and Algonquin dams open completely to reduce water elevations, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
A gazebo and plaque in Viking Park memorializes the former Gurnee Grade School, which was torn down in 2013 due to repeated flooding.
- Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer, April 2016
Stormwater management officials in Kane and McHenry counties, meanwhile, have focused most of their efforts on a voluntary flood buyout program -- a federally funded effort to acquire and tear down perpetually flooded buildings. In fact, it's one of the most common elements of stormwater management across the suburbs.
Buyouts have centered on homes near the Fox River and Nippersink Creek, as well as along Big Bend Drive in Des Plaines, Kilbourne Road in Gurnee and Williams Park in Wauconda Township.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it's often cheaper in the long run to purchase and raze the structures than to pay out federal flood insurance claims time and time again. Homes are removed from the floodplain, and the land is left as open space.
"The No. 1 guaranteed way to make sure a flooded house doesn't flood is to buy it out and tear it down," said Mike Warner, executive director of the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission, which has coordinated some 200 buyouts countywide.
In many cases the buyouts are for residential properties, but in one prominent example, an entire school was torn down.
Gurnee Grade School on Kilbourne Road was leveled in 2013 after being a frequent target of floodwaters from the nearby Des Plaines River. It was common practice, with every anticipated flood, that volunteers worked to fill sandbags and place them around the school building. It cost $300,000 to prepare for and clean up after every flood.
Today, the land is an extension of Viking Park.
Another two dozen homes and one business in the area have been demolished, with more on the buyout waiting list.
Despite the recent flooding in Gurnee, Mayor Kristina Kovarik said the buyouts mean there are a lot of properties that "we didn't have to worry about or rush to protect.
"It creates some storage for floodwaters. The area is a floodway. It is where the water is supposed to go," she said.
Des Plaines River floodwaters extended across River Road in Des Plaines after recent storms. Officials say a levee wall proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might prevent such flooding.
- Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
Most of the flood control projects of the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which maintains 100,000 acres of land along the Des Plaines River corridor, have focused on wetland restoration efforts. The district has removed agricultural drain tiles and planted native vegetation at the Middlefork Savanna, Rollins Savanna, Lakewood North and Pine Dunes Forest Preserves, allowing more time for stormwater to seep into the ground instead of running off.
Officials have long credited the Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project -- about 550 acres owned by the forest preserve district near Wadsworth -- with helping soak up floodwaters in the area. The former site of farms and rock quarry pits was converted into wetlands in the 1980s.
"What we need to think about as a county and as a region is the idea of keeping floodwaters where the drop hits the ground," said Jim Anderson, director of natural resources for the forest preserve district. "'Stop the drop' is a saying I have."
The Harry Semrow Driving Range in Des Plaines could double as a stormwater reservoir under a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- Daily Herald File Photo, 2013
Still to come
Construction could begin as early as this fall on the expansion of the existing reservoir at Buffalo Creek Forest Preserve near Long Grove. When complete, the project will provide 184 acre-feet of additional stormwater storage, with the majority of the benefit occurring in Cook County.
There's another $315 million worth of projects proposed for areas near the Des Plaines River that could help alleviate flooding, including major infrastructure, buyouts, restoration and floodproofing measures, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Plans call for a levee wall next to the river from Miner Street to Touhy Avenue in Des Plaines and for a reservoir at the nearby Harry Semrow Driving Range.
That flood wall could have helped during the most recent flood, when water from the river shut down River Road.
"When you have record floods, you want levees and reservoirs in place," said Jeff Zuercher, project manager for the Army Corps. "We hope to build those projects in the future."
Congress authorized the plans in concept last December; now the Army Corps is waiting for funding to be approved. The federal agency would seek local governments to fund 35 percent of project costs.
Farther south in Schiller Park, Franklin Park and River Grove, walls would be constructed between Irving Park Road and Belmont Avenue, and between Grand and Fullerton avenues, with compensatory storage at a reservoir in the Fullerton Woods Forest Preserve.
Seven ecosystem restoration projects -- two in Cook County, three in Lake County and two in Kenosha County, Wisconsin -- are also under consideration.
Daily Herald staff writers Robert Sanchez and Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.