Green infrastructure solutions aim to protect water supply

University of Illinois Extension Services

The Red Oak Rain Garden on the campus of University of Illinois soaks up rainwater, enhances the campus and community aesthetic and educational experience, and promotes well-being for everyone who visits. (Photo by Eliana Brown for University of Illinois Extension)

A highway of subterranean pipes channel fresh water to and sewage away from Illinois’ homes, businesses, schools and parks.

Pipes also carry runoff from rainstorms and snowmelt. This runoff includes pollutants swept away from parking lots, construction sites, and streets, potentially poisoning the waters and habitats crucial to wildlife and plants.

Illinois’ 155 lakes and 87,110 miles of rivers and streams are vulnerable to the impact of runoff. The Illinois Climate Assessment indicates Illinois is experiencing more extreme weather, including more rain water in a shorter period of time, combined with longer periods of summer drought and higher temperatures.

Infrastructure to move that stormwater, located under roads, is aging and unable to keep up with increased amounts of water. Many communities are turning to innovative solutions that not only help manage stormwater, but give people parks to play in and habitats for birds and butterflies.

Green stormwater infrastructure uses plants and other techniques that mimic nature to slow stormwater and let it infiltrate in place rather than pooling where it becomes a nuisance.

“Green infrastructures are a great tool for communities,” said Lisa Merrifield, University of Illinois Extension community and economic development specialist. “It is usually much cheaper than replacing underground pipes.”

Green infrastructures may appear as a garden, brick parking lot, or plant-covered roof.

“Managing stormwater may be the reason communities turn to green infrastructure, but beautification, livability, and even social justice are co-benefits that make the strategy a really attractive option for communities,” Merrifield said.

To help communities maximize the benefits of green infrastructure, Illinois Extension experts are collaborating with Illinois Indiana Sea Grant professionals, the North Central Region Water Network, and other state Extension and Sea Grant programs.

“Our goal is to connect Extension professionals, so we have the latest science and technology to support real people in real communities,” said Merrifield.

Collectively, this group, the Green Infrastructure Community of Practice, is working to share and cross-train Extension and Sea Grant professionals on models, methods, and tools to understand and assess green infrastructure and stormwater issues, including outreach to community leaders, business owners, K-12 teachers and students, and others.

The group also aims to help communities:

  • understand and use green infrastructure to minimize stormwater runoff and its potential impacts to the built and natural environment.
  • maximize the societal co-benefits associated with green infrastructure, including environmental literacy, workforce development, and diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • be more responsive and resilient to environmental and population changes over time.

“The Green Infrastructure Community of Practice is an invaluable resource for Extension and Sea Grant stormwater professionals,” said Eliana Brown, Illinois Extension water quality specialist. With a background in stormwater engineering and over 15 years of experience in stormwater management, Brown has witnessed both success stories and lessons learned from green infrastructure installations.

Green infrastructure provides opportunities to increase the quality of life for people in neighborhoods. Many communities increase their use of green infrastructure after a major environment or regulatory event.

For example, Peoria began a comprehensive program in 2013 in response to interactions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, the city has completed nearly 30 projects and currently budgets about $1 million each year for green infrastructure, choosing to do so because they believe it will be more cost effective in the long run.