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Philadelphia Has Ambitious Plan to Solve Sewage Problems


Nancy Stoner, Co-Director, Water Program, NRDC, Washington, D.C.
Posted on Tuesday 24th November 2009

On Monday, the New York Times ran an excellent article about the amount of raw sewage that flows into the city's waterways during rainstorms. I welcome the piece; like the other articles in the paper's series on water pollution, it will draw attention to a major urban hazard.

But I have one problem with the article: it could leave the reader thinking that little can be done to address this costly challenge. It gives the sense that sewage is flowing, and no one can stop it.

That simply isn't true, and as the article mentions, Philadelphia is one of the cities working to prove it.

Philadelphia is undertaking one of the most ambitious stormwater plans in the nation. Instead of simply building more storage pipes to hold runoff during rainstorms, Philadelphia is investing $1.6 billion in green infrastructure --things like urban forestry, street-edge gardens, and pervious pavement-- to prevent most of the runoff from hitting the pipes in the first place.

In fact, it has committed to capturing 80 percent of combined sewage and stormwater that would otherwise flow into the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers and nearby creeks every time it rains and put it back into the ground, let it evaporate, or store it for re-use such as for watering plants.

Entitled " Green City, Clean Waters," the plan calls for Philadelphia to do in a comprehensive fashion what other cities are currently doing piecemeal. And because the green infrastructure will be so widespread, the city is essentially launching a public works campaign that will bring broad economic, public health, and jobs benefits to Philadelphia.

I recently blogged about the ways green spaces enhance urban communities and property values. Philadelphia wanted to measure those benefits, so it commissioned a triple-bottom-line analysis of its plan (a TBL looks at environmental and social implications, as well as economic ones). The study compared the green infrastructure measures to a traditional 30-feet-wide tunnel option. The findings are instructive.

  • While the green infrastructure would create an additional almost 250,000,000 days of people enjoying creekside recreation, the tunnel would create zero.

  • While the green infrastructure would save an astonishing 193 people from dying of heat-related illnesses, the tunnel would save zero.

  • And while the green infrastructure would save almost 370,000,000 kilowatts-per-hour of electricity thanks to the cooling effect of trees, the tunnel would save zero.

Just as important during the recession, the green infrastructure creates new opportunities to hire local labor. Building a tunnel requires workers too, of course, but they are highly skilled laborers who likely would already be employed in construction. Stormwater landscaping and restoration, on the other hand, could generate more than 15,250 new entry-level green jobs.

The research shows that green infrastructure can save Philadelphia money--money it would have to spend on unemployment benefits, public health services, and climate change adaptations.

But how do you pay for these investments up front? The New York Times article implied that federal funding is the only option. I would never say anything negative about federal funding--cities and states absolutely need access to federal dollars to restore their waterways. But there are a lot of other ways to finance green infrastructure solutions as well, and Philadelphia is experimenting with some of them right now.

For instance, the city has incorporated green infrastructure into the development process. Every time land is developed for streets, homes, businesses, or industry, sustainable stormwater management must be part of the plan: new projects must meet a 1-inch onsite retention standard.

The city has also its changed stormwater fees. Water rates typically cover how much water you use, which doesn't send a price signal about how much stormwater you generate. Now property owners in Philadelphia will be charged according to the amount of impervious surface area they have, which means the businesses that generate the most stormwater in the city will contribute proportionally to cleaning it up.

DC, where I live, also changed to an impervious-based rate last year, but it has not yet adopted a citywide greening plan, as Philadelphia has. Hopefully the article in the Times will inspire DC to learn from Philadelphia's example.

* * * This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.

Nancy Stoner is a co-director of The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program in Washington, D.C. NRDC is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the environment, people and animals. NRDC was founded in 1970 and is comprised of more than 300 lawyers, scientists and policy experts, with more than one million members and e-activists.

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