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Open-Source Toolkit Aims to Make Stormwater Management Easy

A group of government, nonprofit and engineering stakeholders in the Midwest has published a toolkit of "green infrastructure" templates meant to help prevent flooding.

The Calumet Region, straddling the border between Indiana and Illinois, knows all about urban flooding. It’s lost millions of dollars in property damage because of flooding, and its citizens have paid extra on property taxes for levees to hold back the hook-shaped Little Calumet River.

But there’s more than one way to stop a flood. These days, a network of government agencies, nonprofits and engineers in the area is trying out a method that involves projects a lot smaller and distributed throughout the region — an open-source file kit that anybody can use to get themselves started on stormwater management projects.

The files are for “green infrastructure” that makes use of plants and soil to slow down and store water during storms, effectively keeping it from pooling up and flooding. A common example is a “stormwater planter,” a concrete box with plants growing in it that engineers can channel water into. The designers can choose the plants, making the project look like a regular beautification effort, while the root-filled soil acts as a way to infiltrate, store and slow down water. Eve Pytel, director of strategic priorities for the Delta Institute in Chicago, said one stormwater planter can hold hundreds of gallons of water during a rainstorm — gallons that might otherwise be headed for an overtaxed gutter.

Since the Delta Institute, working with other members of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, released the files in the summer of 2015, word has been spreading about the design templates. The nonprofit Opportunity, Advancement, Innovation group, for instance, has already used the files for projects in Park Forest, Ill., that will be built this spring. And Pytel said she knows of several more groups that intend to use the templates in their projects.

“And because the templates are available, they’ve been able to apply for funds that they previously wouldn’t have been able to apply for because they wouldn’t have been able to articulate what it is that they [wanted to do],” she said.

That’s because, according to Pytel, the templates help people over the first few hurdles in the design process. A city might want to build green infrastructure to help control stormwater, but that doesn’t mean it knows enough to get it done. City leaders may not know what kinds of projects they could pursue. The templates, which include computer-aided design (CAD) files, give cities several possibilities, including specifications and decision-making tools.

“It’s a basic description, and these are specs that have them understand what would be required for the project upfront,” said Danielle Gallet, a manager at the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago.

Having files open and available free of charge like that is not common, Gallet said. Often people involved in the project need to rely on engineering firms to provide descriptions and specifications of a project. Because of that, they might find themselves telling a stakeholder about the project instead of showing them the project and providing details.

“People are sort of like, ‘We have flooding, we want to do something that looks nice, but we don’t know any more,’” Pytel said. “So this helps have the conversation of what you might do.”

The templates were designed with the Calumet Region, and specifically the Millennium Reserve, in mind, but they will more or less work anywhere. According to Pytel and Gallet, the scalable specifications in each template can be applied across the U.S. with minor tweaks taking into account plant selection and local water law.

“Until now, CAD files really haven’t been available," Pytel said. "So this is something that really democratizes use of the information."

Aside from stormwater control, green infrastructure projects have another use — reducing pollution. Stormwater that runs along the concrete and asphalt of an urban environment picks up a lot of pollutants, including fertilizer nutrients, pet waste, petroleum and copper from car brake pads. Unchecked, those pollutants will travel with stormwater straight into Lake Michigan.

That’s why a central component of the green infrastructure templates is infiltration, or the sinking of water into the soil. Dirt acts as a natural filter, removing those pollutants from the liquid before they can gather up in mass quantities and affect water quality.

The stormwater issue is a big one in the region right now, one that Pytel said is drawing more government attention. So the templates are gathering a good deal of attention — and this spring, she said she expects to see a lot of projects based on the templates put in place.

“Our hope is that as municipalities encourage people to use green infrastructure or use green infrastructure themselves, that they can be much more specific about what [they want to see] built," Pytel said, "and they can be much more successful in managing stormwater."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.