Philadelphia and Green Infrastructure

Category: Water
Posted on: January 18, 2012 4:14 PM, by
 Liz Borkowski

Philadelphia and Green Infrastructure

Aging US water infrastructure has meant more leaks, flooded basements, and massive sinkholes in cities across the US. Fixing the water and sewer systems in need of repair will take billions of dollars, and it's hard to find that kind of money in the budget these days.

Saqib Rahim reports for ClimateWire on Philadelphia's decision to use "green infrastructure" rather than building a larger pipe system to handle the water that's dumped on the city during severe storms. The combination of more intense storms and more paved area is a problem: Impervious surfaces like roads, sidewalks, and parking lots can't absorb rainfall, so it ends up in the city's stormwater collection system -- which, in many older cities, is combined with the sewage system. When these combined systems are overwhelmed by heavy rainfall, the result is often that a rainfall-and-sewage mixture gets discharged into a local waterway. (Read more about this problem here.) Rahim explains Philadelphia's solution to this problem:

Instead of building an even larger pipe system to address the issue, [Water Department Commissioner Howard] Neukrug pitched the most aggressive "green infrastructure" plan in the country. Through increased vegetation, rain barrels, sponge-like roads and other measures, the city would try to absorb more water where it fell. The ground would filter out pollutants, reduce strain on the pipelines and make the city a more attractive place.

Neukrug tells Rahim that the green infrastructure solution will cost Philadelphia $2 billion, compared to $8 billion to $10 billion for larger underground tunnels. But the part of the city's plan that's currently causing a controversy is what water customers will pay. They'll now be charged not just for the water they use, but for their contributions to stormwater problems -- that is, sites with a lot of impervious surfaces will pay more.

The average household will see an average bill rise from approximately $60 to around $63.50, Rahim reports. For some large businesses, though, costs could rise significantly over the next few years -- and 100 of these businesses have hired a lobbyist and met with the Water Department to oppose implementation of the new billing practices.

I can understand why these businesses are upset. When they invest and plan for their businesses' futures, they assume the rules will stay the same. Their extensive impervious surfaces are causing problems for public health, but they might not have realized that their decisions about what to pave were raising costs for the city's residents (and everyone else affected when its sewage ended up in local waterways).

Changing the rules isn't ideal, but it's the best solution if the current rules create incentives for behavior that harms public health. If this country had never changed the rules to make businesses start bearing more of the cost for problems they cause the general public (externalities, in economic language), we'd still have rivers so polluted that they catch fire. Governments can ease the pain by providing grants or low-interest loans to help businesses and individuals invest in greener setups -- and, Rahim reports, Philadelphia is offering loans to businesses that want to green their facilities. Increases in bills will also be capped at 10% or $100 per month.

Such an approach could also be used to address other public health issues like CO2 emissions -- but so far, opposition to a carbon tax has been stronger than support. In the meantime, I'll be watching Philadelphia's effort and hoping it succeeds with a green solution to water infrastructure challenges.


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  • Why Every City Should Be Planting Rain Gardens


    • JAN 27, 2012
    • Why Every City Should Be Planting Rain Gardens

      Why Every City Should Be Planting Rain GardensWikimedia Commonsl

      Andy Wible’s backyard in Washington, D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood doesn’t look much like a sewerage drain. But his Bayberry, Bee Balm, Iris and Golden Ragwort plants get the job done – and then some. Dug 30 inches* down and filled with a mixture of sand, topsoil and compost, Wible's rain garden draws raindrops tumbling off the roof deep into the soil, purifying them and recharging the groundwater.

      The backyard patch is part of RiverSmart Washington, a new network of rain gardens that seek to mimic a natural ecosystem and end the scourge of sewerage overflows that have long befouled the country’s waterways.

      "We’re seeing a paradigm shift in this country on how we think of urban runoff," says Nathan Gardner-Andrews, general counsel for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The group represents about 280 public water utilities around the country, more than a third of which are under court order to reduce polluted runoff and bring local waterways in line with federal clean water standards.

      Once, cities were built to channel storm water away from building foundations and roadways. But as urban areas have grown, rooftops, streets and other impervious surfaces have disrupted cities' natural hydrology. Today, everyone from water authorities to home gardeners are looking to absorb rain where it falls, eschewing traditional treatment plants and underground sewerage tunnels that effectively neutralize runoff, but don’t do much else.

      The first of these projects matured in Portland, Oregon, and Prince George's County, Maryland. Now, dozens of cities including Washington, Philadelphia, and Louisville have embarked on their own overhauls. 

      They are attracted, in part, by the lower cost of planting trees and gardens and retrofitting streets, parking lots and roofs. But it's also a matter of pay-off. Taxpayers never see the underground fixes. But green infrastructure is something people can use and enjoy, says Joan Furlong, program manager at the Rock Creek Conservancy, a D.C. nonprofit group working with city officials to recruit residents and business owners to the RiverSmart Program.

      "It’s become a really hot topic in the last five years or so. Before that green fixes weren’t really accepted by the regulatory agencies," Gardner-Andrews says, particularly the EPA, which first publicly endorsed green infrastructure just five years ago.

      The agency now endorses planting greenery to absorb rainfall as an important tool for adapting to rising sea levels and more extreme storms.

      Wildlife also benefits. For instance, if you live in Maryland, planting White Turtleheads in your rain garden can provide much needed habitat for the state butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, which will only lay its eggs on Turtlehead leaves, says Carole Barth, an environmental planner with the Department of Environmental Resources in Prince George's County, Md.

      But doing a rain garden requires careful site planning, experts say. If planted too close to buildings, they can exacerbate rather than alleviate basement flooding. And it's important to find a patch of land where water percolates well through the soil, which is not necessarily the case everywhere. Researchers have found years of mowing and other activities sometimes leaves the ground so compacted that its about as permeable as concrete.

      One U.S. city that's mastered the art of the rain garden is Portland, Oregon. Over the last decade, the city has added nearly 300 eco-roofs and more than 700 other types of "Green Streets facilities" - things like rain gardens and planters running along curbsides and wedged into street corners where the storm water naturally collects.

      The Green Streets improvements deliver an annual volume reduction of more than 80 percent of storm water runoff, says Linda M. Dobson, a division manager in Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services.

      "We’ve found that green infrastructure works best when you management it right at the source. The natural system can function very well on its own, if you don't overwhelm it," Dobson says.

      In terms of savings, she points to one of Portland’s sub-basin initially estimated to cost $144 million in old-school sewer upgrades. By substituting a greener approach, the city shaved $63 million off the cost. "Now our whole capital improvement plan recognizes both the gray and the green infrastructure as tools in our toolbox," Dobson says.

      D.C. officials hope to follow in Portland’s footsteps, reducing storm water flows while cutting back on planned underground construction. But retrofitting existing places like Andy Wible’s Washington, D.C. neighborhood is a tricky business, particularly when homeowners and businesses are involved.

      The $3.5 million RiverSmart pilot (which includes a $700,000 grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation) targeted homeowners and businesses in two small sewer sheds that feed into a single spot each where excess runoff overflows into Rock Creek, making results easier to monitor.

      More than a third of the homeowners targeted, 51 in all, signed on for the grants. City contractors installed 30 rain gardens, planted trees and made other green fixes. Officials are now working on the next phase of the project, which includes adding similar greenery to city owned alleyways and curbsides and recruiting local businesses to green their roofs and parking lots. If data collected next year shows big reductions in runoff, the city is likely to expand the garden approach in other neighborhoods.

      City contractors took pains to select plants that would require as little gardening as possible. The wetland plants usually don’t need to be watered once they take root and tend to crowd out most weeds, Furlong says. Nevertheless, how well the gardens hold up over decades in which houses are sold and businesses change hands is one of the chief unknowns, Gardner-Andrews says.

      “It’s pretty easy to calculate the costs of tunnels over time but green infrastructure must maintained over a 20 or 30 year period,” he says. “We know (green infrastructure) can be effective, but how effective over time?”

      Wible, who moved into his house with his wife Stacey Fahrner in 2008 and hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about the patchy crabgrass in the yard, has only praise for the program that has allowed him to be a good citizen and, he thinks, has improved his property’s value – not to mention its aesthetic one.

      “In addition to helping reduce pollution and stormwater runoff,” he says, “we really love our yard now. It looks great.”

      *An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the depth of the rain garden plot.

      Christine MacDonald is the author of Green Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad. Her work has also appeared in The Nation and Miller McCune magazines and newspapers including Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Washington Post.

    backyard in Washington, D.C.’s Petw

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