After the Flood: Winnetka Prodded Into Action

Village Council is quick to hire flood prevention planner after residents rail at meeting.

New plans for floodwater prevention in Winnetka are in the works, after the Village Council unanimously approved spending up to $50,000 to draft a proposal.

Shortly after hearing outraged residents accuse the board of "analysis paralysis" during the public comment section of a village meeting at  on Tuesday night, the Council was quick to act.

Christopher B. Burke Engineering of Rosemont got the job of drawing up plans within two months.

“I'm in the hospital, project-management business,” one irate resident said, “and billion-dollar projects have been started and finished in the time that we've taken to review this storm water project.”

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Tuesday's meeting addressed the July 23 storm, which flooded the village and nearby communities with nearly seven inches of rain and left residents to clean up extensive damage and debris. It was the most rainfall in a single day on record for the village.

Many board members recalled walking through Winnetka streets to survey the damage, which council trustee E. Gene Greable called a “war zone” and “holy hell” for residents.

“First, [the village must] own up to the facts,” Greable said, “that we have storm water and sanitary water, infrastructure needs that must be addressed now, tonight, next week, [within] one month.”

Greable added that a significant amount of money, including up to $6 million in village reserves, should be allocated for additional floodwater prevention.

At the beginning of the meeting, Steve Saunders, lead engineer and director of Public Works for Winnetka, provided a summary of the flood, complete with bullet-points of what happened on July 23.

“We need to vigorously pursue open space for detention,” Saunders said. “This is not a piping solution [the village needs]. This is a detention solution."

System failure

As far as waterworks go, Winnetka is what engineers call a "separate sewer community," according to the village's storm report.

When storm water runs from areas, such as streets and yards, it collects in a specific sewer system in the village and drains into Lake Michigan, the Skokie River and its tributary, the East Diversion Ditch.

Unlike storm water, when waste-water leaves toilets, sinks and other sources of interior plumbing, it heads straight into the sanitary sewer system, then off to the Metropolitan Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

According to the report, the flooding on July 23 dealt directly with the storm water system.

“The [storm water] pump station at Ash Street and Hibbard Road [one of six in Winnetka] failed at some point when...the sewer system became clogged,” according to the report. When the pump failed, it stopped draining water until six more portable pumps were installed.

The afternoon following the storm, that single underground pump was repaired. By Sunday morning, the pump was operating at full capacity.

Placing the blame

Gauging the magnitude of the storm—which produced the largest amount of rainfall Winnetka has seen in 100 years—the pump's failure affected the flooding only slightly, according to village officials. 

For one homeowner, the pumps did not prevented previous storms from flooding his home.

"This is my fourth flood of at least seven feet of water, each time," said James Feld, a 25-year resident of Winnetka. "I appeared before this board of trustees...in 2008. I brought pictures. Our house, like everyone else's house, was like an island."

Feld told the board that he loss his previous insurance because of flooding. He said coverage now costs him $20,000 a year, with a $25,000 deductible.

"I view the trustees, as my representatives, as totally failing," Feld said. "You're supposed to be my representatives, and I see, literally, nothing done to help me. I understand the analysis, but I'm just voicing what everyone else has voiced."

Weighing options 

In the storm report presented Tuesday night, village staff offered three options for financing any storm water projects:

  • That the village use $5 million of its $17.23 million cash reserve.

  • That the village issue bonds that would be repaid through creating a storm water utility fee, which would be tacked onto the monthly utility bill of Winnetka property owners.

  • That the village increase property taxes instead of adding a storm water utility fee.

Moreover, the village recommended working with school districts and other government bodies, such as New Trier High School, the Cook County Forest Preserve and the Winnetka Park District, to acquire land for storm water retention sites.

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