Climate change and poverty contribute to local flooding

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Photo by Tiffany Jolley. Roads in SW Champaign were closed for hours due to flooding. Photo taken July 12, 2014.

On-going flooding still plagues the Champaign area, despite multi-million-dollar changes made to local water areas over a decade ago. 

Steady population growth and rising water levels caused by on-going climate change contribute to the city’s current flooding problems, but Champaign’s high poverty rate could also be to blame, said State Climatologist Trent Ford.

“The impacts of climate change, and the extreme variability of climate change, disproportionately affect countries and other areas of the world that are more poverty-stricken,” Ford said. “Partly because those areas lack the resilience and adaptive capacity to deal with those events. And, when you’re in poverty you have fewer resources.”

The state and national poverty rate have been steadily decreasing over the last decade — the national average is approximately 12% while Illinois’ is about 13.5%. However, Champaign’s poverty rate has seesawed significantly. 

In 2011, nearly one-fourth of Champaign residents were living below the poverty line, according to Census data. Despite several increases in 2011 and 2014, when 23.5% of people lived below the line, the city’s poverty rate has hovered around 20%, which is over six percentage points higher than the national average. 

According to Champaign’s Public Works department, however; on-going flooding, especially residential flooding in basements, isn’t more prevalent in any one neighborhood. Rather, insufficient stormwater drainage systems cause most of the flooding on roads and sidewalks. 

“I don’t think we can point to any specific geographic area that is most susceptible to basement flooding in the last two years,” said Kris Koester, Administrative Services Manager in Champaign’s Public Works Department in an email. “In general, any street with storm drains that are blocked could be susceptible to being flooded. However, pavement is part of the stormwater detention system.”

While more poverty-stricken areas of a community may be more impacted by events such as flooding, Ford said it’s important to consider continuing climate change. 

Based on observations from Champaign’s COOP weather station, not only have water levels in Illinois have been increasing about 0.6-inches every decade since 1899, but the daily precipitation has also grown in the same time span. Over the last 20 years, Champaign has been doused with the highest rate of precipitation on record. 

Updating infrastructure is one way to easily combat climate-change-related flooding, Ford said, especially in urbanized areas that aren’t close to major waterways such as Champaign-Urbana. 

“A lot of those urbanized flooding issues come from outdated sewer and drainage systems or a lack of drainage and retention, those sorts of things,” Ford said. “So, the adaptation comes from updating infrastructure.” 

But revising infrastructure is something Champaign is still in the process of doing. 

The Champaign City Council and Public Works department enacted stormwater drainage plans as recent as 2017. However, construction of new infrastructure to minimize flooding won’t be completed until 2031, nearly 25 years after the initial action was taken to reduce the impact of excess stormwater.

Property tax revenue, fees, and loans from the Environmental Protection Agency are fueling three major infrastructure phases in Champaign: improvements to West Washington Street stormwater drainage, redeveloping parts of Boneyard Creek in lieu of Bristol Place construction, and changes to Garden Hill drain systems which includes the purchase of property along Hedge and Joanne Roads. 

The land surrounding Boneyard Creek is largely the University of Illinois’ campus; however, Garden Hill is comprised of households making about $10,000-$20,000 less than Champaign’s $44,000 average income. 

The Copper Slough is a southwesterly flowing body of water that empties into the Kaskaskia River, which is southwest of Windsor and Rising Roads in Champaign. Since the early 2000s, the Copper Slough channel has been the major cause of urban flooding throughout the greater Champaign area. 

The channel’s watershed, the land which separates different bodies of water flowing around the area, drained in a 16-plus mile radius prior to renovations made to the Copper Slough and its banks from 2005 to 2007 by the City of Champaign and Clark Dietz Engineering. 

However, in the last two years, the Copper Slough’s water levels have reached almost six feet above the 10-foot average. 

The City of Champaign Public Works Department could not be reached for comment on the current state of the Copper Slough. 

Improvement plans to the Copper Slough were initially projected to cost upwards of $26 million but ended up costing approximately $15 million, according to engineering studies for the city. The plans were divided by priority, with a section of the watershed near a bridge on Kirby Avenue being of greatest concern to City government. 

The improvements included channel widening and stabilization, detention pond creation, storm sewer installation, and water quality pond construction as well as revisions made to stormwater ordinances and the reorganization of Drainage Districts in the area. 

While it could be another decade before the Champaign area reaps the benefits of long-term projects to minimize flooding, the city is still taking steps in the right direction. 

“Doing things like updating infrastructure and being sure things are built to our current climate environment, public education and bringing in the public to make sure decisions are being made with (them) in mind,” Ford said. “A lot of adaptation to flood is going in that direction.”

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