After a heavy rain Julie Lomax knows her office phone will be ringing off the hook. As the stormwater administrator for one of many Chicago-area communities dealing with increased flooding, she is sympathetic to the heartbreak and concern residents feel when water damages their homes or businesses.
Stormwater management, especially in the face of a changing climate that brings more frequent and intense storms, is a large and complex challenge, and Julie is helping the Village of Downers Grove to get ahead of the issue.
In 2013, Downers Grove implemented a monthly stormwater utility fee, one of only a few in the region. The fee is calculated based on the total square footage of impervious area on a parcel, including parking lots, roofs, driveways, patios, gravel, and decks.
“People are paying based on their impact on the stormwater system,” Julie said. “It gives people an incentive to decrease the amount of imperviousness on their lot.” Residents can also get incentives for using green infrastructure solutions like rain barrels, permeable pavers, or detention basins.
The fee was not received well at first, Julie said, and village staff had to undertake an intense campaign to explain the issue to residents. “Public education is key,” she said. “We let people know that they have control over how much they pay in stormwater utility fees.” After years of reinforcing the need for a fee, and the control it gives residents over their own bills, in 2016 Downers Grove voters approved a referendum to keep the stormwater utility fee.
And while the fee helps address deferred maintenance and a handful of projects each year, homes in Downers Grove still experience flooding and Julie’s phone still rings. The village, like much of the region, was developed many decades before there were stormwater regulations. If the transit-oriented mixed use hub of downtown Downers Grove were being built today, it would require 350 acre-feet of storm storage, Julie said. Instead it has 15.
As the community continues to develop, smaller homes are torn down and replaced with ones that cover a larger surface area. “The water doesn’t have anywhere to go,” Julie said. “I wish people would understand that everything they do has an impact on someone else.”
It’s by working together that Julie said the region can build resilience by 2050. “I want to help people understand that we have limited resources. If everyone does their little part with a great amount of love, it can add up to have a huge impact.”