Mickey’s buckets, and a look at our wettest-ever month of May

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The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

It started with a puddle on our basement floor.

At first, we thought it was due to a leaky washing machine that spits out small amounts of water at the end of the final spin cycle. But, when the water would not drain, we knew it was more serious.

As the day progressed — it was Feb. 1, a Friday, and just after last winter’s Polar Vortex — the puddle got larger and we realized that our sump pump had stopped working. Water from the washing machine goes into the sump pump pit along with moisture from our house’s foundation and a drain in the basement stairwell.

Patty tried mopping the floor but there was too much water, and the sump pump pit was overflowing. So I borrowed a Shop-Vac from our neighbor across the street, John Roberts, and we used that to fill buckets with water, which we emptied into the laundry tub.

That, of course, was the wrong thing to do. Water from the laundry tub empties directly into the sump pump pit and we were only making the situation worse. At some point, we called the Flossmoor Public Works Department and talked to a helpful staff member – she suggested to Patty that we empty our buckets in the backyard. Which we did.

A resident on Riegel Road in Homewood pumps standing rain water from the home’s yard on May 1. Residents throughout the area have battled yard lakes and flooded basements as relentless spring rains came faster than the terrain could drain. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
  A resident on Riegel Road in
  Homewood pumps standing
  rain water from the home’s
  yard on May 1. H-F residents
  battled yard lakes and flooded
  basements as relentless rains
  came faster than the terrain
  could drain.
 
(Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
 


That involved making about 40 trips up the stairs to the backyard, and then flinging water onto the snow-covered lawn. We also emptied enough water from the pit to make sure it would not overflow for a while.

It took me about a minute to remember Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with Mickey Mouse nearly drowned by an army of magically-generated brooms and buckets. For once, I knew how Mickey must have felt as the barrage of buckets continued.

Everything was under control until Sunday, when the snow began to melt and — as best as I can determine — started seeping into the sump pump pit, which again overflowed. That meant more buckets of water and trips up the basement stairs.

On Monday, our estimable handyman, Kirk Powers, replaced the sump pump and the crisis was over. As basement water calamities go, it wasn’t much, and doesn’t deserve to be called a flood. The water was restricted to the laundry room, with its cement floor. It’s not like we lost carpeting or a paneled basement or a hot water heater. We were lucky.

But it was certainly a reminder of what can happen when water does not behave correctly. Ours is a world where we expect water to stay in pipes, to be there when we want it for taking showers and flushing the toilet and getting a drink in the middle of the night.  When water creates a problem ... well, it can be pretty bad.

We have just gone through the wettest May ever recorded in the Chicago area. There were 21 days of rain, with a total of 8.25 inches of wet stuff setting a new record. During one seven-day period between April 27 and May 3, the National Weather Service recorded 5 inches of rain in Homewood. The single largest amount of rain in our region, recorded at O’Hare Field, was 1.92 inches on May 27.

On May 1, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the agency that does its best to control stormwater in the Chicago area, reported that the McCook Deep Tunnel reservoir was filled to its capacity. The MWRD’s Calumet system, designed to halt flooding on the city’s South Side and 13 south suburban communities – and includes the Thornton Quarry reservoir – took in 3.5 billion gallons of water.

When all that rain fell in May, it was a challenge on the local level, but not catastrophic.

“We experienced some local street flooding during the heavier rain events but nothing too bad,” Flossmoor Public Works Director John Brunke told me. “The biggest issue from the rainy spring was yard flooding throughout the town in the low-lying areas. The ground became saturated so the rain would not soak in and would just become small ponds and swamps.”

During heavier rain events, Brunke said, the local storm sewer system will become inundated but will drain once the rain stops.

“When the system is inundated, it surcharges and the water floods around the inlets and in the streets,” he said. “The water will absorb into the ground but not when it becomes too saturated so it ponds up and stays there until it can soak in.”

We already know some of this, right? After all, we live in an area where there is abundant atmospheric moisture and it occasionally visits us in the form of torrential rain.
But a wettest-ever May should give us pause, and raise the question of whether it is signaling some kind of new climate reality.

I heard a climate scientist on the radio a couple days ago and he said the May rains – and the fact that so much water is still in the ground – explain why the first half of June was colder than usual, and very cloudy. 

He said that all the water in our yards, left over from the rains, is keeping the air cooler, almost like a natural air conditioner. On warmer days, some of the water evaporates and that creates clouds and fog. That also has a cooling effect. In short, all the leftover rainwater is directly affecting the local weather system.

I’ve written in this space before about my three pawpaw trees, located at the end of the backyard. Pawpaws are native fruit-bearing plants. I’ve had the trees for seven years. Last year, for the first time, one of them produced a small amount of papaya-like fruit. The trees flower in May and, hopefully, the flowers lead to fruit in September.

This year, though, the heavy rains took their toll and the flowers were all gone before they had a chance for pollination. So there will be no fruit this fall.

That is unfortunate but totally insignificant compared to what farmers in Illinois and other Midwestern states are experiencing. When their fields are under water, it means they will only be able to grow a fraction of their normal crops. It’s also been terrible for people in nearby states who live close to flooding rivers.

By now you may be wondering what my broken sump pump has to do with a major weather event in May. True, there is no genuine connection. Except for water.

I’d like think that my weekend of bailing out the laundry room, and all those May showers, are just blips on the screen, isolated events that will not become commonplace.

If, however, we are facing a new climate reality, it could mean getting used to levels of water that are beyond our control.

And we may find ourselves climbing the stairs with buckets of water – and without Mickey’s charming moon-and-star magician’s hat.

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A great community deserves a great newspaper. The HF Chronicle was created in June 2014 as an online publication. In December 2015 we began monthly print publication, too. Our mission is to chronicle the life of our community — news by, for, and about the people of Homewood and Flossmoor, Illinois.

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