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September 29, 2014

Restoration Results: Great Lakes Restoration and Protection Updates

Wednesday, September 24, Great Lakes Interagency Task Force Chair and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the release of the new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan.

According to the EPA, the release marks the end of a process that started with the March 2013 White House’s announcement committing to another five-year Plan, pre-draft public outreach in 2013, public input after the release on May 30 this year, input by several expert entities (e.g., Great Lakes Advisory Board, GAO and Science Advisory Board), and a lot of hard drafting work by the 17 agencies that report to the Task Force.

Read more at http://glri.us/.

 

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August 23, 2014

Illinois’ next governor must adopt new paradigm to fix flooding

Originally published by The Connector, the blog of the Metropolitan Planning Council. 

Illinois’ flooding issues are widespread, and come in many forms: river flooding, urban street flooding and basement backups. Each flows from a complex interaction of rainfall, infrastructure, landscape and human behavior. Yet when a flood occurs, the people affected want simple answers to a couple of straightforward questions: Who is going to fix this mess? And who is going to prevent this from happening again?

Unfortunately, the answers are rarely clear-cut.

Illinois has 966 publicly owned wastewater treatment plants, 1,742 regulated community water supplies within 33 major watersheds. To regulate these assets, we have local utilities, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, State Water Survey, Dept. of Natural Resources and various health departments. Then there are the Feds—the Army Corps of Engineers, Dept. of the Interior, Dept. of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency. While managing water is no small task, getting all these agencies to coordinate is an even bigger challenge. This quagmire of management agencies fractures the water cycle—and too often undermines our ability to respond in times of crises, leads to inefficient use of resources and buries solutions in a byzantine bureaucracy.

How the state can more efficiently manage its water resources will be among the topics Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Bruce Rauner (R), the state’s frontrunner candidates for governor, will address at the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Annual Luncheon on Aug. 28. I’ll be interested to hear their ideas because solving these issues in Illinois will not be easy.

Nature—and nations such as New Zealand and various Native American tribes—offer instructive lessons. One such example is to organize around natural boundaries, such as watersheds, which are ridges of land that separate waters flowing into different rivers, basins or seas. The Continental Divide is among the most famous watersheds, but in Illinois we have 33 of our own.

Yet consider this: In our region, boundaries for stormwater districts differ from those for sewage districts, which do not coincide with water supply boundaries. All of which fail to align with watershed boundaries.

Read more on The Connector.

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August 13, 2014

Toledo’s water ban demands a holistic view

Originally published on cleveland.com.

It is unthinkable that, in the world’s richest water region, there is a city that cannot access safe fresh water. Yet in early August, those served by the city of Toledo’s water intake in Lake Erie woke without water to drink. For several days, almost half a million people living within sight of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes, brushed their teeth, washed their babies and ran their businesses with water carried in from the grocery store.

This is neither simply a Toledo problem nor even a Lake Erie problem. While the culprit for those water troubles has been identified as the toxin microcystin, found in the algal blooms that have engulfed the city’s water intake point at the mouth of the Maumee River, it is but a symptom of a larger governance and land-management problem.

Every day, runoff from our agricultural fields and our urban centers carries a mix of fertilizer, manure and sewage to the shores of the Great Lakes – a lake system that constitutes 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. In short, every last community and farm upstream of the mouth of the Maumee River is complicit in this month’s events in Toledo.

In natural systems, algae growth is limited by the availability of phosphorus. But our urban and rural runoff carries with it unnaturally high amounts of phosphate, essentially fertilizing our lakes into self-destructive cycles characterized by headline-catching plumes of algae, with invasive species lingering in the shallows.

The problem of excessive nutrients and algal blooms is nothing new. In fact, societies since Mesopotamia have been dealing with the mixing of manure and sewage with water. In the United States, the Clean Water Act has resulted in reductions in loadings of nutrients from cities and from agricultural activity.

However, the situation in Lake Erie highlights the long journey to fully protect our lakes and make them safe for swimming, suitable for fish and usable as a source of drinking water.

Climate change and the prospect of more frequent extreme weather events only increase the imperative for new approaches. In its Great Lakes Century Vision Plan, the architect-engineering-design firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has called out agricultural runoff and climate uncertainty as two of the region’s most pressing challenges. By illustrating the Great Lakes Basin as one region, the 100-year Vision Plan highlights connections between urban and rural areas and the fact that water doesn’t recognize political boundaries.

Protecting the Great Lakes requires stewardship of the land that drains into its tributary rivers. We must stop applying excessive chemical fertilizers to farm fields and – more fundamentally – prevent runoff at the source. Soil amendments such as gypsum increase soil’s capacity to infiltrate rainwater, and buffers between fields and drainage systems can further absorb nutrient-carrying water before it reaches waterways. Less runoff means less soil erosion and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers.

In cities, technology is already available to remove phosphorus from wastewater effluents – keeping it out of our lakes and directly reducing the need to dig phosphorus out of the earth for fertilizer. Some cities also capture and treat sewage overflows, reducing bacterial contamination and nutrient loading of source waters. Governance – from the city to the regional scale – needs to proactively address future needs, enable innovation and allow for future flexibility.

All of us in the Great Lakes Basin have a role to play, not only to prevent the regional embarrassment of repeating Toledo’s water ban, but also to improve the ecological integrity of the Great Lakes. A holistic view and collaborative efforts across stakeholders and governments are critical. This region can be a place bold enough to embrace its urban centers and agricultural hinterlands as part of one integrated ecology – a place where toxic algal blooms are once again unimaginable.

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July 15, 2014

“Changing How We Plan, Design, Build, Live and Think”

The Chicago Architecture Foundation features Great Cites, Great Lakes, Great Basin is its new 2013 Annual Report.

 

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July 10, 2014

Water Resources Inspire Water Technologies

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region is home to many of the world’s leading research universities, public and private research & development labs and international corporations.  This collection of human capital is already the foundation of a powerful knowledge economy with global reach. The region also has the world’s largest collection of surface freshwater and has the potential to become for the world leader of freshwater research, learning, and innovation.

At the recent Water Council meeting in Milwaukee June 18-19, many of the speakers commented on the value of a water-centric economy.  But it was Rich Museen, CEO of Badger Meter, who best summarized the idea and the phrase “like water, talent pools” especially caught my attention.  His comparisons of Milwaukee to Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, and Route 128 express how physical clusters, and proper branding can successfully galvanize a local economic sector with ripple effects felt throughout the region.

The City of Milwaukee has a rich history of water companies, many evolving to manage the wet industries of the day. Today, institutes such as The Water Council, the Freshwater Institute and many corporate headquarters in or near Milwaukee are branding and identifying themselves as a globally significant cluster of water expertise.  This is good for the region, and good for solving the near and far water problems of the world.

The Reed Street Yards in one of the exciting projects coming to fruition as a result of this pooled talent base.  This once brownfield area of Milwaukee will soon be the desired address and a thriving cluster of water companies, with startups co-located with billion dollar public companies, who are expanding markets globally and solving problems with local know-how.  The world needs more opportunity to share ideas that improve humanity’s relationship with water, and I look forward to seeing how the Water Council’s work can inspire our region’s leadership to bring innovation that creates freshwater security for people and planet.

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June 23, 2014

Great Basin Exhibition at AIA Convention This Week

Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin is on display at the AIA Convention in Chicago this week. The exhibition  is a collaboration between SOM, the International Secretariat for Water and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Thanks to sponsors ArcelorMittal, Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, and Sloan for their support.

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April 9, 2014

Great Lakes, Great People: Rick Valicenti

Rick Valicenti is the founder and design director of Thirst, a communication design practice providing design and immersive environments for high profile clients in the architectural, performing arts, and education communities. Rick’s recent honors include the 2011 National Design Award for Communication Design from the Smithsonian Cooper-­Hewitt. SOM worked closely with Thirst on the development of the Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin exhibition among other media throughout the Great Lakes Century initiative. In a recent conversation, Rick described a future where best practices are in practice and calls for a larger grassroots in which every member of the public feels a sense of ownership for regional freshwater resources.

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March 31, 2014

Great Lakes, Great People: Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson is a landscape architect and Stormwater Program Manager at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. At CNT, Ryan promotes the value of using green infrastructure—trees, rain gardens, and native plants—to soak up raindrops where they fall and alleviate pressures on traditional grey infrastructure systems that lead to flooding. Ryan also leads CNT’s Wetrofit program—a one-stop service for homeowners  to reduce the risk of property flooding. Ryan talked with us recently about how re-reversing the Chicago River would renew public engagement with local water resources, and how multiple smaller, neighborhood-scale solutions can lead to significant improvements in resource use.

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March 24, 2014

Great Lakes, Great People: Christian Greer

Christian Greer is Vice President of Learning Initiatives at Chicago Architecture Foundation. With over 20 years experience in informal education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program design, Christian has become a leading figure in interest-driven learning and oversees CAF’s ArcelorMittal Design Studio; architecture exhibitions; public programs like Drinks and Design and the city’s largest annual architecture event Open House Chicago; youth and teacher education curriculum such as the  and the Architecture Handbook; and digital learning tools such as DiscoverDesign.org. SOM worked closely with Christian on the development of the Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin exhibition and we recently discussed how design and design thinking tools can help reframe challenges associated with sustainability and conservation. One of the greatest challenges, Christian explains, is inspiring people to take an expanded view of the Great Lakes system as a basin that extends beyond the shoreline.

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February 25, 2014

Chicago Tonight: Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin

On Chicago Tonight, Phil Ponce talks with SOM’s Phil Enquist about sustainability, strategies, and urban design aimed at eliminating waste and ensuring fresh water for future generations.

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