By Sarah Fister Gale
Green infrastructure has reached a tipping point. These nature-based systems are no longer viewed as last minute add-ons to massive gray infrastructure projects. Cities across the country are making green infrastructure a stand-alone component of their stormwater management efforts and creating research-based project plans specifically designed to channel stormwater away from vulnerable flood zones and promote cleaner, more sustainable waterways.
“Green streets are part of how we do business,” said Tim Kurtz, head of the green infrastructure program for Portland, Oregon. Portland began implementing green systems in the late 1990s in response to combined sewer overflow (CSO) requirements set by the state. Over the past 20 years, the city has retrofitted hundreds of streets across the city with curb extensions, swales, pervious pavement, and rain gardens to catch and filter stormwater.
Huge Savings Attract Attention
The city also launched a downspout disconnection program from 1999-2011 that generated huge economic returns. The city spent $13 million to disconnect 56,000 downspouts, which was roughly one percent of the city’s total CSO budget, and it resulted in 20 percent of the desired stormwater control, Kurtz reported. “It had a huge financial impact, which caught the attention of policymakers and ratepayers.”
Proving and promoting the benefits of these projects is vital for cities attempting to attract more investment in green infrastructure. “Community outreach has been a huge part of our success,” Kurtz said. “You have to talk about the impact to win support.”
Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford University, agrees. “For hundreds of years we have tried to overcome nature with gray systems,” she said. “But working with nature solves a lot of the problems we face at a lot less cost.” Along with being cheaper and easier to build than gray pipe systems, green infrastructure beautifies the community, creates shade and shared spaces, and can cut down on noise and crime. “There are multiple positive benefits of green infrastructure and it is important to acknowledge that,” she said. Ajami is currently working on a research project to measure the benefits of green infrastructure in cities across the U.S. and globally. She believes that being able to measure the positive impact of these systems can help cities win over skeptical stakeholders and support ongoing investment in these projects.
In Chicago, another team of innovators is using machine learning and analytics to demonstrate the impact of green infrastructure in an urban environment. Alex Frank is the program manager for the City Digital group at the UI Lab incubator, a collaborative innovation center focused on improving city infrastructure. Its first project used Internet of Things sensors to gather information on the performance of green infrastructure at four sites in the city. The sensors, which are embedded in the substrate, capture and transmit data about soil moisture while a weather station collects real-time data about rainfall at the site to correlate water movement. Frank’s team will then compare the data to historic weather events to demonstrate impact and monitor performance over time.
“By continually monitoring this infrastructure over time, we can refine the design of future green infrastructure installations and calculate its effect compared to gray pipes,” Frank said. “It will help Chicago and cities like it to generate the greatest return from these investments.”
Although city leaders can learn a lot from these early pioneers, it’s also important to remember that every city has different water management challenges and goals, said Melissa McDonald, river and watershed coordinator for the City of Santa Fe Water Department in New Mexico. “In the desert, stormwater is a resource not a nuisance; we just have to manage it effectively.”
Santa Fe is implementing a citywide green infrastructure plan linked to its 2040 sustainability goals that takes a targeted approach to stormwater management. Rather than building random rain gardens wherever there is open space, the city analyzed where flooding was the greatest risk and designed green infrastructure elements that would move and manage the water in a more sustainable fashion. “A lot of damage came from the old way of thinking - that you must move the water out as fast as you can,” she noted.
Sustainability is about a whole lot more than "going green." It's about creating reliable, consistent infrastructure that can be managed, maintained and upgraded well into the future.
Santa Fe’s plan, which is built around the three goals of Slow, Flow and Grow, includes building 28 roadside rain gardens along the Santa Fe River, which runs through the capital city. The gardens catch the water and draw it through sediment traps that filter debris, support growth, and send cleaner water more slowly back into the river. “We are always looking for the potential to move water through the landscape to promote vegetation in the desert,” explained McDonald. “It is a great way to alleviate pressure on the stormwater system while creating pocket parks for the community.” Santa Fe has built seven gardens so far and has made funding for the remaining gardens a priority.
Building this infrastructure is only half the battle. These systems are made up of living, breathing organisms that require monitoring and care to continue to perform at optimal levels. “Maintenance of green infrastructure isn’t more challenging than managing gray infrastructure,” McDonald said, “it just requires cities to rethink how they do things, and whose job it is.”
Yet the lack of specific knowledge about green infrastructure can make it difficult for municipalities to staff these projects, noted Matt Ries, chief technology officer for the Water Environment Federation (WEF) in Washington, D.C. “You’ve got streets and sanitation crews who are trained to do paving, not installing permeable pavement and maintaining rain gardens,” he said. “It is the antithesis of green infrastructure.”
WEF recognized that for the green infrastructure movement to fully take hold, cities would need access to a workforce that is trained to build and maintain these systems. So they partnered with 15 leading utilities to create the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP), which sets national certification standards for green infrastructure construction, inspection, and maintenance workers. The program features 35 hours of class and field work and includes a final certification exam. Students only need a high school diploma or GED to participate.
“The certification supports the development of green infrastructure systems and establishes a career path for skilled green infrastructure workers,” Ries said. To create value for the certification, many of the participating utilities will include preference for contractors using certified professionals in their bid specs. “Our partners will create the market demand,” Ries explained. And as the certification becomes more in demand, these professionals will be able to apply their skills in cities across the nation.
Bethany Bezak, head of the NGICP program for DC Water, likens it to LEED certification for green buildings, which came about in the late 1990s and was rapidly adopted, helping to promote green building practices around the world. “We’ve only just started, and we are already picking up steam,” she said. The first program was held in Washington, D.C., with 62 graduates in December 2016, and another 46 in June 2017. Since then, communities have been reaching out to Bezak to find out more about launching their own program, and the partnership is preparing to launch the training on a national level next year. “There is real demand for this kind of talent,” she said.
Ries agrees. “In the next 20 years, wet weather management will require $100 billion in infrastructure investment, and a lot of that money will go to green infrastructure,” he said. “We are going to need a workforce to support it.”
About the Author: Sarah Fister Gale is a Chicago-based correspondent for WaterWorld. Over the last 15 years, she has researched and written dozens of articles on water management trends, wastewater treatment systems and the impact of water scarcity on businesses and municipalities around the world.