Add sewage in homes and maggot infestations to the list of what climate change can bring to American life.
A big report in the Washington Post on Wednesday laid out how Chicago’s aging infrastructure is intersecting with climate change’s tendency to drive heavier bursts of precipitation in some parts of the country, with some exceedingly unpleasant results. As in other older cities like Boston, the design of Chicago’s waste water system is 120 years old, and as a result handles both storm water and sewage. The city’s system was constructed for a much smaller population, on the assumption the biggest storms would hit once each decade. So when more than one inch of rain hits in a single day, the system overflows into the Chicago River — and when 1.5 inches or more hits, the system backs up into basements and homes across the city.
Lori Burns, a resident of Chicago’s South Side, told the Post that her home had flooded four times between 1995 and 2006, with the inundations recently increasing to every other year. In April 2013, her home was one of roughly 600 Chicago buildings that was flooded by sewage. It ruined her rugs, clothes, and family heirlooms, and forced Burns and her brother to go through the house with bleach. A week later, Burns entered her basement only to find a horde of maggots had occupied it thanks to the sewage bringing eggs up the drain.
“It was like a scene from Amityville horror,” Burns told friends. “I couldn’t see past the staircase!”
According to the Post, rains of 1.5 inches or more in Chicago have noticeably increased in recent years, and projections say rains of 2.5 inches or higher should ramp up another 50 percent in the next two decades. The National Climate Assessment paints a similar picture: annual precipitation in the Midwest has already gone up 37 percent since 1958, and is anticipated to go up another 10 to 20 percent by 2100.
“Designs are based upon historical patterns of precipitation and stream flow,” the assessment says, “which are no longer appropriate guides.”
Nor does the impact end with residences and buildings; the overflows from increased precipitation are also bringing more sewage and fertilizer and other runoff into the Great Lakes. As a result, the west side of Lake Eerie is now often overrun by algae blooms during the summer.
This past May, Farmer’s Insurance brought a landmark suit against the City of Chicago in Illinois court, citing the April 2013 sewage flooding as a preventable failure. The lawsuit alleged the city “should have known that climate change in Cook County has resulted in greater rainfall volume… than pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced,” and that its existing infrastructure is inadequate.
Chicago’s own 2010 Climate Action Plan acknowledges the way humanity’s carbon emissions contribute to climate change and help drive up the odds of extreme weather events. It outlines new energy efficiency targets, efforts to build up reliances on renewables, and pollution cuts, among many other goals. But the city is still grappling with some of the fossil fuel industry’s dirtiest actors: another lawsuit has been brought against the Koch Brothers and 10 of their companies, over the health effects of petcoke pollution. The substance is a byproduct of tar sands oil refining, and the Koch’s companies allegedly stored it in large piles along the Calumet River on Chicago’s southeast side. As a result, clouds of petcoke dust have plagued low-income residents in the area.
Farmer’s Insurance eventually dropped their lawsuit. But the firm hopes the attempt will “encourage cities and counties to take preventative steps,” while laying precedent for future such lawsuits across the country if climate change persists.
As for Lori Burns, she reacted to her experience by joining an urban flooding support group, writing the city, and speaking up at council meetings. Chicago’s South Side is one of the city’s most socio-economically diverse areas, with many residents who don’t have the resources to deal with sewage floods every few years.
“What are we supposed to do on the South Side,” she asks. “What are old or poor or sick people supposed to do? Surely not be forced out of their homes every year?”
David St. Pierre, head of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, told the Post the city is working to upgrade its storm and waste water storage system. It can now take on 2.7 billion gallons of overflow, and should be able to 7.5 billion gallons by 2015 and 17.5 billion by 2029. Chicago’s Climate Action Plan also includes adding French drains to highways, repaving roads, and adding $50 million in flood prevention infrastructure — rain barrels, permeable alleys, trees, and other natural ways to cut storm runoff by 250 million gallons. Other cities like Boston are gearing up for similar efforts.
“I don’t see any overflows happening when that’s done,” St. Pierre said. “We’re getting this under control, maybe more than any other city in the U.S.”