"Spring" Into Action: Prevent Sewer Overflows and Keep the Lakes Great

04/01/2015 12:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015


Rain garden at Shedd Aquarium, situated on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, IL. Photo by © Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Spring on the Great Lakes is a time when the ice covering the lakes melts, snowfall is gradually replaced by rainfall, and below the surface of the lakes, migratory fish start their move towards the rivers and streams where they'll spawn.

The same April showers that bring May flowers can also make the lake levels rise, sometimes dramatically, with the influx of ice and snow melt combined with spring's increased precipitation.

These rapidly changing lake levels can be challenging for the more than 42 million people living within the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basin, as well as the wildlife and plants who call the basin home.

Spring's rapid increases in water levels and more frequent flooding can cause sewer and water reclamation systems to be overwhelmed. During a combined sewer overflow, thousands (or even millions) of gallons of rainwater, mixed with sewage from homes and businesses, bypass the normal treatment process and go directly into the Lakes, a source of drinking water for millions of people and habitat for even more wildlife.

To further complicate matters, weather in the Great Lakes is changing -- and not just because it's springtime. According to the most recent NOAA stats, springs in the Great Lakes are becoming wetter and more extreme, with more heavy precipitation falling at once in the form of giant storms, the kind that can flood even robust water reclamation systems.

The good news is that across the basin, towns and cities are coming up with new and better ways to repair aging water infrastructure and keep the lakes free from sewage. Cities like Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Toronto are just several of the leaders developing water reclamation and flood mitigation solutions.

These municipalities -- and many more -- are finding success by drawing inspiration from nature. By building holistic water management systems that consider the effects of seasonal lake levels and climate change, municipalities around the Great Lakes are combating overflows and reconnecting urban ecosystems. Instead of adding new concrete channels and barriers to redirect storm water, these towns and cities are building and adapting infrastructure to do as nature does, finding ways to help rainwater absorb back into the ground.

You too can be an important part of protecting the Great Lakes fresh water that so many animals, plants and humans depend on. Here are a few simple ways you can help this spring:

  • Don't run your dishwasher, take showers or do laundry during a rain storm. You can prevent your extra sewage from being added to an already taxed combined sewer system.
  • Since all drains lead to the lakes, if you're looking to scrub that layer of winter grime from your car, be sure to use a biodegradable soap and try to wash on a permeable area, like gravel or grass.
  • Planting rain gardens with deep-rooted native species can help rain water soak deep into the ground instead of sewer pipes. Check out our gorgeous, pesticide free rain garden here at Shedd if you need a little inspiration.
  • Rain barrels capture the water from your roof and gutters, keeping it out of the sewer pipes and you can use the water for your thirsty plants when it's dry again.

Whether you're a municipality managing a water reclamation system or an individual looking to make a difference, spring into action to help keep the Great Lakes clean. Let us know how you're helping by tweeting @Shedd_GL or leaving a comment.