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Photo: Philadelphia Water Department
A rain garden manages stormwater runoff in Philadelphia’s Germantown section. 

When I was at the magazine, I solicited several articles about Philadelphia and what people there were doing to bring more of the natural environment into urban living. It’s not easy for any city as budgets are often strained. But when you can make the case that environmental improvements ultimately save costs (or when an EPA is serious about quality of life), you have a better chance of getting things done.

Bruce Stutz at Yale Environment 360 (a great publication I recommend following on twitter @yaleE360) has the story.

“Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia’s favorite son, described his city’s stormwater problem well: By ‘covering a ground plot with buildings and pavements, which carry off most of the rain and prevent its soaking into the Earth and renewing and purifying the Springs … the water of wells must gradually grow worse, and in time be unfit for use.’

“When he wrote this in 1789, many of Philadelphia’s water sources, the scores of streams that ran into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, were already cesspools of household and industrial waste. As they became intolerable eyesores and miasmic health hazards, the city simply covered them with brick arches, turned the streams into sewers, and on top constructed new streets, an expanding impervious landscape that left the rains with even fewer places for ‘soaking into the Earth.’

“Crude as it was, this network of underground-to-riverfront outfalls through ever-larger pipes was pretty much the way Philadelphia and other U.S. cities coped with their stormwater for the next 200 years.

“But Ben Franklin’s town has decided to take the lead in undoing this ever-more costly and outdated system that annually pours huge volumes of polluted stormwater runoff and untreated sewage into the Delaware and the Schuylkill. Instead of building more and bigger sewers and related infrastructure, Philadelphia has adopted a relatively new paradigm for urban stormwater: Rather than convey it, detain it — recreate in the urban streetscape the kinds of pervious places where, instead of running into surrounding waterways, rainfall and the contaminants it carries can once again soak into the earth.

“The city is now in the seventh year of a 25-year project designed to fulfill an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce by 85 percent Philadelphia’s combined sewer overflows. … Rather than spending an estimated $9.6 billion on a ‘gray’ infrastructure program of ever-larger tunnels, the city is investing an estimated $2.4 billion in public funds — to be augmented by large expenditures from the private sector — to create a citywide mosaic of green stormwater infrastructure. …

“At nearby Villanova University, the Urban Stormwater Partnership, founded in 2002 under environmental engineering professor Robert Traver, had begun experimenting with green stormwater infrastructure. [Howard Neukrug who served as the city’s water department commissioner from 2011 to 2015] developed a couple of low-impact pilot design projects, and in 2009, the Philadelphia Water Department released a revision — 12 years in the making — to its stormwater and sewage management plan….

The city is working now to standardize the construction of green infrastructure and monitor its effectiveness. Costs are coming down as green infrastructure becomes more widely adopted. …

“As the Water Department’s planners expand the network of greened acres, they are bringing social, economic, and environmental investment to often marginalized neighborhoods. [Marc Cammarata, the Water Department’s deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services] says that green stormwater infrastructure projects now support 430 jobs. … Residents already report that green infrastructure projects have reduced crime as green spaces proliferate, says Cammarata.

The Water Department’s website map is crowded with green infrastructure sites across the city. Visitors can zoom in on their neighborhood and see what’s there.”

More here.

 

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Some Massachusetts river enthusiasts were concerned about the amount of rainwater runoff that goes into the big sewage-treatment plant on Boston’s Deer Island and then out to sea. So they came up with a different concept.

Jon Chesto reports at the Boston Globe, “The massive Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant was once hailed as an environmental victory, one that would revive a then-defiled Boston Harbor while processing sewage for more than 40 cities and towns. But roughly 15 years after the plant’s completion, one local group still isn’t ready to celebrate.

“The Charles River Watershed Association has instead proposed an unusual alternative to the hulking plant: smaller, neighborhood treatment centers that would convert waste water and discarded food into energy. That energy would then be sold to help defray the cost of the projects.

“The nonprofit group’s primary aim in developing the concept was to limit the vast amounts of rainwater and ground water that get sucked into sewer pipes to be washed out to sea via Deer Island, a phenomenon that is harming the Charles River by decreasing its water volume. …

“These plants would first need to attract customers. Some of their business would come from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, which would redirect some of its waste water to the facilities to be processed. More income would come from a food processing business that would rely on large customers such as colleges, hospitals, and big restaurants to ship discarded food to the facilities.

“Like the waste-water residue, the food trash can be placed in an anaerobic digester system that breaks down the organic material and converts it to methane gas to generate electricity. That power could reduce a facility’s operating costs and be sold into the region’s grid. The remnants could be converted into fertilizers.

“ ‘We’re throwing away a lot of potential revenue as if it were waste, as if it were a bad thing,’ [Charles River Watershed executive director Bob] Zimmerman said. ‘It’s only waste water if you waste it.’ ”

More here.

Infographic: David Butler/Globe Staff
Source: Charles River Watershed Association

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I hope colleagues who saw almost the same post on the blog I contribute to at work don’t mind a repeat. I’m winging it a bit as I hold a two-day-old little girl in my left arm and type on her mom’s Mac with my right.

This post can be taken as reassurance that there are pockets of people here and there working to make the world greener for my grandkids and yours. It originates with Jim Robbins, Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network.

He begins in Seattle.

” ‘The biggest threat to Puget Sound is non-point sources [of pollution],’ says Nancy Ahern, Seattle Public Utilities deputy director.

“Blowhole samples taken from killer whales have revealed fungi, viruses and bacteria living in their respiratory tracts, some of them antibiotic-resistant and once found only on land. Health officials often have to shut down oyster beds because of fecal contamination. Salmon in streams are killed by torrents of dirty storm water.

“To lessen this deluge of diffuse pollution — a problem faced by many regions worldwide — Seattle is looking not at new and expensive sewage treatment infrastructure. Instead it is embracing an innovative solution to storm water runoff called green infrastructure … A growing number of places, from New York City to Sweden, are investing in everything from rooftop gardens to pollution-filtering assemblages of trees to reduce tainted runoff.

“Gray infrastructure is the system of pipes and ditches that channel storm water. Green infrastructure is the harnessing of the natural processes of trees and other vegetation — so-called ecosystem services — to carry out the functions of the built systems. Green infrastructure often intercepts the water before it can run into streets and become polluted and stores the water for gradual release through percolation or evapotranspiration. Trees also clean dirty water through natural filtering functions. …

A 2012 study by American Rivers, ECONorthwest, and other groups examined 479 projects around the country. About a quarter of the projects were more expensive, they concluded, and 31 percent cost the same; more than 44 percent brought the costs down, in some cases substantially. New York City, for example, expects to save $1.5 billion over the next 20 years by using green infrastructure.” I call that having your cake and eating it, too.

More.

Photograph: Mike Di Paola/Getty Images
Plants grow on a rooftop farm in Greenpoint, New York.

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