Waste water flows from an outlet drain onto a beach in Winnetka near Spruce Street. Some residents are concerned about a village plan that would dump more polluted storm water into Lake Michigan. / Photo by: Sue Galler

With its multimillion-dollar homes and pristine public spaces, Winnetka is one of the wealthiest, most desirable communities in America. It also has some of the worst water-quality problems along Lake Michigan, with numerous beach closings in warmer months due to potentially harmful bacteria levels.

Now there are growing concerns the north suburb is going to further harm water purity by building a massive pipeline that would collect runoff during major storms and dump it into the lake – the source of drinking water for almost seven million people in the Chicago area.

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The question over whether to build the pipeline was the subject of an advisory referendum on the March primary ballot, and based on the results, a slight majority (54 percent) of residents oppose the project.

“We’re talking about untreated, polluted water and putting it in a source of drinking water,” said Irwin Polls, an environmental consultant advising a group of residents opposed to Winnetka’s proposed tunnel. “It’s a combination of all the chemicals involved, not just the bacteria,” he added, noting that storm water would collect chemicals from lawns, basements and streets before ending up in the lake.

Village officials said they’re mindful of the perils of the pipeline, which would be around eight feet in diameter and span 7,900 feet. The plan also is expected to include a treatment mechanism designed to keep some pollution out of Lake Michigan. An engineering report is expected in early June.

Winnetka officials say they need to act to protect the community from severe flooding. More than 1,000 Winnetka homes reported flooding after a heavy July 2011 storm, they say. In terms of cost, the village estimated $7.6 million in uninsured damages from that July 2011 storm and “many times more in total damages,” according to a town report on the storm water plan. Some residents have lost homeowners insurance due to repeated flooding.

And village officials indicated there aren’t a lot of alternatives to the pipeline because the community is relatively small and densely populated without space to create wetlands to soak up heavy rainfalls. A large portion of the suburb is on a flood plain.

  People swimming in Lake Michigan at a Chicago beach / Image credit: Flickr user Christopher Bowns (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Winnetka’s initiative is being proposed at a time when a growing number of communities are turning to more environmentally conscious (or “green infrastructure”) solutions for storm water control, initiatives that aim to keep additional toxins from being washed into the lake. In addition to protecting the Chicago area’s main source of drinking water, the immediate concern around a proposed tunnel is the potential pollution hazard to swimmers and the general health of the lake. It’s an issue that has ramifications all along the shore in communities that need to balance flood control and concerns about Lake Michigan.

“A lot of villages and municipalities are looking at storm water and they’re not talking about water quality. They’re talking about flooding,” Polls said.

Polls, who said he is receiving no compensation for his advice to the Winnetka residents, is concerned about the short- and long-term threats to the lake from chemicals and metals washing into it. A particularly large storm may even pose a risk to drinking water intake, he said.

Winnetka’s storm water is already going into Lake Michigan. The concern is that the tunnel would potentially dump a lot more in. Chemical runoff would add to an existing problem of dangerous bacteria near Winnetka’s shoreline. In the past few years, swimming at beaches along the lakeshore of the suburb was banned on numerous occasions due to high levels of potentially harmful bacteria, according to state public health data. Four of those beaches were designated as “impaired” last year by state environmental regulators. One beach, Elder Lane, was ranked one of the worst in the country for swimming water quality by a national environmental group based on 2011 testing.

E. coli / www.niaid.nih.gov

Environmental authorities say that measures need to be taken in each community to protect the lake. The immediate issue is dirty water discharged right into the lake after a storm that can make swimmers sick from contact with E. coli. According to a report released last year from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the concentration of E. coli in water near some of the most polluted North Shore beaches was higher than recommended safe levels. Those high levels increase the risk of swimmers becoming ill.

There are numerous explanations for the bacteria contamination, ranging from sanitary sewer leakage to gull populations. But storm water is either a known or suspected source of E. coli at Winnetka and other North Shore beaches, a state EPA report said. Storm water is the most frequently identified cause of beach closings in the U.S., according to the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

Last year, four Winnetka beaches – Tower, Maple, Elder Lane and Lloyd (primarily a boat launch) – were determined by the Illinois EPA to be impaired because of high levels of the bacteria. The beaches were among a group of 13 designated as problematic in suburban Cook County. Other North Shore beaches with high levels of harmful bacteria include Winnetka neighbors Glencoe, Kenilworth, Wilmette and Evanston, according to Illinois EPA. The number of people who get sick each year from dirty lake water is not documented in a government database. Anecdotally, a public health spokeswoman said, reporting is spotty as symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain) may show up hours after swimming.

While the recent Lake Michigan oil spill from a BP refinery in Whiting, Ind., is causing outrage from local politicians, a major source of the lake’s pollution is originating from cities and suburbs. Residents along the lakeshore are contributing to more fertilizers, pesticides, gas, oil, animal feces and other contaminants being carried from storm water into the lake, environmental officials say.

Tower Road Beach in Winnetka / YouTube user YoNorthShore

“It’s what’s on the streets, in your yards, what’s in your basements. These are potential sources of runoff,” said Marcia Willhite, chief of the Illinois EPA’s bureau of water.

“We understand and appreciate the challenge of protecting property from flooding but at the same time they need to make sure to take steps to assure water quality,” Willhite said.

If Winnetka finalizes plans for its proposed storm water tunnel, the village will need to seek approval from Willhite’s division, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into the lake. She declined to talk about the merits of the Winnetka plan since it has not reached the permitting stage. Green infrastructure must be a part of any municipal permit, she added. Green infrastructure includes changes to properties such as permeable pavement and altered gardens to help soak up rainwater.

The suburb will have to convince the Illinois EPA that it won’t discharge significant amounts of bacteria into the lake. Other government bodies, including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, will also have to sign off on the suburb’s plan.

Winnetka’s lakeshore water already is being monitored by the Illinois EPA due to the past beach closings. Last year, Winnetka’s Elder Lane beach was closed on seven occasions due to high bacterial levels, Illinois Department of Public Health records show. In 2012, the beach was closed a dozen times. Winnetka officials credit fixes to nearby sanitary sewer outlets for the year-over-year reduction.

For their part, Winnetka officials say that they are mindful of the need to protect the lake but they cannot guarantee that any system is foolproof.

There are measured maximum amounts of pollution allowed in the lake by state and federal environmental regulators “but these numbers are not absolute in guaranteeing no pollutants,” Winnetka Trustee Arthur Braun said. “That’s impossible.”

Steve Saunders, Winnetka’s director of public works and village engineer, said the suburb’s consultant MWH Global will make recommendations on the viability and cost of the tunnel – which now is estimated at $34.5 million. (The majority of the amount would be funded by issuing bonds that are repaid through storm water utility fees.) MWH also is charged with proposing a filtering system and some green infrastructure components to mitigate the amount of water discharged into the lake.

One of the most contentious issues surrounding the project is the assertion by some residents that the village isn’t seriously considering more environmentally friendly methods of handling the storm water, a charge that the suburb’s officials deny.

Winnetka looked at green initiatives, Saunders said, but determined that they would not fully address heavy rainfall caused by what was once termed 100-year storms. The tunnel idea is strongly supported by some residents, notably the Winnetka Home Owners Association, a group that recently said flooding is lowering home values. The median Winnetka home sales price jumped more than 70 percent over the past year to more than $1.3 million for December through March but that figure was well below the more than $1.6 million peak median price in 2008, according to the real estate website Trulia.

Winnetka, a suburb of more than 12,000 residents, is just one of the North Shore communities wrestling with sewer issues. Kenilworth and other towns are watching Winnetka as they deal with their own flooding issues. Kenilworth is in the process of separating its storm water and sanitary sewer systems and is implementing some green initiatives to help redirect storm water so it mitigates how much will be sent to Lake Michigan, Kenilworth Village Manager Patrick Brennan said.

“Of course, we’re all concerned about the quality of the lake,” Brennan said.

Winnetka officials echo the sentiment.

“There is no one on the village council that doesn’t want to protect the lake,” Winnetka Village President Gene Greable said.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, who can be reached at (312) 821-9033 or bchase@bettergov.org.