Anyone who lived in Chicago during 2013 remembers the flood. The sewage system overflowed causing geysers on the North Side and lots of flooding on the South Side. Climate change has caused more rain to fall over Chicagoland and our sewer systems can’t take it. The heavy rains in the summer of this year and the sinkholes that opened up are proof that something needs to be done to direct all that water safely.
Yet Chicago’s sewer problems also point to another big issue, the disparity in sewer service between the North and South sides of the city. The sewers in South Side Chicago can’t handle all of the increased rain. Every time there is a big rain, many homeowners in Chatham and other South Chicago communities have to have their basements pumped out. Worse, much of that water is sewage backflow.
The reasons for this problem are many. First, increased development means less earth to soak up water. That means more water makes its way into the sewer system. Second, many of the sewers on the South Side were installed 80 years ago and haven’t been upgraded since. Third, the expense of installing backflow preventers and other plumbing methods to prevent sewer backups is too much for many homeowners.
The problem can’t be handled by just installing home plumbing improvements, either. While this may protect a single home, water that would have overflowed into that home is forced into the surrounding homes. Every home on the South Side would need these improvements to avoid passing the problem around to everyone else. The only real solution will be a massive overhaul to the sewer systems of the South Side.
The South side of the city, especially low-lying areas like Chatham and Blue Island, has the highest levels of insurance claims for flooding in the city. However, many homeowners are reluctant to talk about their problems with basement flooding for fear of reducing home values. Yet if they sell the house those problems must be revealed as part of the sale. A basement that floods regularly with sewer water shouldn’t be sold. The sewage must be cleaned and the problem must be fixed and it must be fixed with the help of the city and regional areas. Homeowners shouldn’t be punished for faulty infrastructure, nor should they be forced to make flooding worse for their neighbors just to protect their homes.
Some of these neighborhoods are forming groups to combat the problem and lobby lawmakers. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has been fighting flooding and other problems across Chicago for several decades, but newer groups like Northeast Blue Island Resident Action Group are pushing for sewer upgrades and spreading awareness about the problems they’re facing in their basements every time it rains. While some homeowners do neglect sewer problems on their land that contribute to the issue, there is plenty of evidence that shows this is something that goes beyond homeowners.
Problems with flooding in Chicago aren’t new, and projects like the Deep Tunnel project are needed to control flooding in the city. But flooding doesn’t have to involve sinkholes or overflowing rivers to cause problems. The invisible flooding happening in every hard rain on the South side must be addressed by the city sooner rather than later. Otherwise, people will be forced to live in unsanitary conditions and put homes up for sale that are unsafe.