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Winnetka's Flooding Bouts are Legendary

A look back at the village's damp legacy and what the powers that be have done to correct it.

It's no secret, Winnetka, there is an age-old problem.

Since the village's mucky beginnings in the mid-19th century, floodwater has invaded homes, enveloped streets and transformed backyards into backwaters.

To add to that list, it has disabled cars, submerged basements, turned major roadways into canoe thoroughfares and even delayed, by two months, one of the largest floodwater mitigation projects undertaken in U.S. history: the creation of the Skokie Lagoons from 1933 to 1942.

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“We had to put everything in the basement, that could be moved, up [to the first] floor,” recalled one resident in Winnetka Talk, during the 1938 flood that dumped 7.5 inches of rainwater that delayed the lagoons project. “But the water came up Saturday night and caught it.”

Sound familiar?

Though fixing the issue has often been delayed—as many residents are well aware of—the village has made significant progress in a region that attracts flooding like a child who has spotted a puddle.

Even more disconcerting is the recent magnitude of flooding in the area, where 6.61 inches of rainwater was dumped in Winnetka on July 23, dented real estate values and led village officials to consider the latest in flood mitigation projects to address storm events that happen once every 100 years.

But to fully grasp the steps that have been taken to solve this problem, even before the village was incorporated, residents might want to begin with one question: What has Winnetka done so far?

'Big Wet Prairie'

It all starts with the Chiwab Skokie or 'big wet prairie,' as the Pottawatomie called it.

Once a marshland, encompassing more than 500 acres of Winnetka, Northfield and Glencoe, it comprised the largest floodplain on the North Shore.

Before the 1940s, residents couldn't stumble too far into the marshland without the stench of peat fires hitting their olfactory or stumbling upon a horde of mosquitoes. Farmers grazing cattle near the marshland would occasionally see them sucked into muddy sinkholes, according to Winnetka: The Biography of a Village by Caroline T. Harnsberger.

Its biggest claim to fame, though, was flooding. During heavy downpours, the marshland quickly filled and sent streams of floodwater across western Winnetka. By the time the rushing rainwater reached Provident Avenue, then a riverbed, much of the western half was saturated.

Frank Windes, who became village engineer in 1898, recalled the unpredictable nature of the marshland for the Winnetka Historical Society:

“During the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, a number of 'wild cat' subdivisions were laid out in the Skokie in the fall, and plank sidewalks were built. The next spring the Skokie flooded and the sidewalks sailed away to unknown parts. The boys in town used these plank walks for rafts.”

Before then, residents made one plausible attempt to divert the waters in 1864 by creating the Skokie Ditch, according to Harnsberger, which ran all the way to Kenilworth, then a private farm. (Its southern end is at what is now the Indian Hill Golf Club.) But it became polluted with sewage, and during the dry season, the marshland turned into a dust bowl that blew east and its brush easily caught fire with a mere spark.

Any attempt to solve the flooding in Winnetka was abandoned until 1933, when Windes readied his plans and federal support for the Skokie Lagoons.

Charting a Course for Nature

Flood mitigation has been no small feat for the Village of Winnetka nor the rest of the North Shore.

Roughly 4 million cubic yards of earth, including most of the Chiwab Skokie, was excavated by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal program created in the 1930s during the Great Depression that employed several hundred ditch diggers, dam builders and camp workers.

"There's been something menacing yet fascinating about the Chiwab Skokie," Windes wrote near the end of the lagoons' construction. "As a boy I didn't want it drained or improved. I wanted to...enjoy it as the mystical place it was. But the old timer must let go; the next generation must improve and carry on."

And so they did.

By 1942, the CCC had completed the Skokie Lagoons, turning Winde's marvel of engineering into a reality. By 1960, the seven-mile stretch of waterways, dams and drainage ditches had proven its worth by retaining much of rainwater during a storm similar to the one in 1938.

Preparing for the Future

As of today Winnetka has developed into what engineers call a "separate sewer community," according to a recent village storm report.

The stormwater system runs into large water bodies, such as Lake Michigan, from streets and yards, while wastewater heads straight into the sanitary sewer system, then off to the Metropolitan Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

According to the village report, the July 23 flooding was directly traced to the drainage system: a stormwater pump station failed due to the magnitude of rain. 

After hearing from residents at public forum on Aug. 2, when they spoke of ruined homes, damages in the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars and countless floods from years past, the village council requested more research in taking steps to prevent such severe losses in the future.

A previous report, aimed at storms that happen once every 10 years, entailed $14 million in projects, which engineers said would have had little affect on the July 23 storm if the work had been implemented.

“We need to vigorously pursue open space for detention,” Steve Saunders, director of Public Works Department, said during the forum. “This is not a piping solution [the village needs]. This is a detention solution."

What the village decides and where it finds rainwater detention space—with New Trier High School, the Cook County Forest Preserve and the Winnetka Park District as top choices—are just two of many questions that remain unanswered.

One thing village officials don't have to question, though, is the weather.

For a vivid telling of Winnetka's history, including the construction of the Skokie Lagoons, purchase the film "Winnetka Story: The History of Winnetka & The North Shore" for $19.95 at the Winnetka Historical Society, 411 Linden St., or at Phototronics photo shop, 740 Elm St. The DVD can be ordered online at www.winnetkastory.com.

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