Watching a big thunderstorm roll across Illinois is awe inspiring, but afterwards do you notice water pooling in the streets? Or worse yet, running through your basement? According to the recently published Illinois Climate Assessment, 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. All that means that the infrastructure under the roads to move that stormwater away often can’t keep up. Some of it is over 100 years old. 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 or GI uses plants and other techniques that mimic nature to slow stormwater down and let it infiltrate in place rather than pooling where it becomes a nuisance. “GI is a great tool for communities,” says Lisa Merrifield, a community and economic development specialist with University of Illinois Extension. “It is usually cheaper than replacing underground pipes and to most of us GI looks like a pretty garden, a brick parking lot, or a plant covered roof. Managing stormwater may be the reason communities turn to GI, but beautification, livability, and even social justice co-benefits make GI a really attractive option for communities.”
Merrifield currently coordinates with Green Infrastructure Community of Practice (CoP), a coalition of Sea Grant, Extension, and other outreach professionals who support community green infrastructure programs. “Our goal is to connect outreach and technical assistance professionals, so we have the latest science and technology to support real people in real communities,” says Merrifield.
Merrifield has had a 25-year career dedicated to building sustainable and resilient communities in the Midwest and Great Lakes. Prior to joining University of Illinois Extension, Merrifield coordinated the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable with funding from US EPA Region 5 and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program. In Extension, Merrifield runs the Sustainable Communities Initiative and does applied research and outreach on community sustainability.
The GI CoP is led by Merrifield in partnership Sea Grant and Extension specialists in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan and the NCRWN. GI CoP membership includes representatives from 15 Great Lakes and North Central states and well as representatives from Georgia, Connecticut, and a few other states.
The GI CoP is working to share and cross-train Extension and Sea Grant professionals on models, methods, and tools they can use 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; and
- be more responsive and resilient to environmental and population changes over time.
University of Illinois Extension water quality specialist, Eliana Brown is a member of the CoP and notes that it gives her a change to share some of the lessons she has learned on the job. “The GI CoP is an invaluable resource for Extension and Sea Grant stormwater professionals.” With a background in stormwater engineering and over 15 years of experience in stormwater management, Brown has witnessed firsthand both success stories and unanticipated challenges from GI installations. “The GI CoP gives me a chance to share my knowledge, but more importantly, learn from my colleagues in other states.”
For more information on the GI CoP or to join, visit https://northcentralwater.org/green-infrastructure/
Lisa Merrifield, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign
Lisa Merrifield is the sustainable community specialist within University of Illinois Extension’s Community and Economic Development Team. She works with University of Illinois faculty, Extension specialists, Extension Educators and community leaders to identify opportunities and approaches that help local governments and organizations address the challenges they face. Prior to joining Illinois Extension, Lisa served as assistant director for the Illinois Water Resources Center and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and as the executive director of the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable. Lisa has over 20 years of experience working to build sustainability in Illinois and around the Great Lakes. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a Master’s degree in Urban Planning with a focus on natural resource planning.