Faster, Cheaper, Greener

Accelerating Innovative Stormwater Management Towards a Net Positive Future

This article is inspired by Dominique Lueckenhoff’s keynote address at the Green Cities Clean Water Exchange September 2015 convening in Philadelphia. Ms. Lueckenhoff posited that green stormwater infrastructure provides cities with both the medium and programmatic flexibility to reform local economies, remake communities and retrofit infrastructure. Her keynote was an exhortation to act from our values, to take risks and to turn sustainability into the new innovation and economic frontier.

Ms Lueckenhoff’s keynote title acts as a tagline for green infrastructure innovation: “faster, greener, cheaper” sets the stage for our work together as a network, driving rapid scaling of green infrastructure programs for maximum benefit to our communities.

The Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange (the Exchange) is a forum for change agents managing stormwater programs. It is a place to spark discussion, share experiences, and work together to build a new generation of infrastructure that responds to contemporary challenges. This is the first of a number of written articles that will summarize the state of the industry, lay out challenges and potential solutions, and foster an environment of collaboration. As change agents, we must find faster, cheaper, greener solutions to infrastructure delivery.

Introduction

When Jane walks out the door on a rainy day, she remembers to grab her raincoat, galoshes, and umbrella to keep herself dry. Yet, she gives no thought to where the rainwater falling all around her goes. She expects the sidewalks and streets will be wet, but not swampy.

This is the beauty of urban infrastructure. It just works. Until it doesn’t. Urban infrastructure managers, unlike Jane, understand that a vast network of pipes, pumps, and waterways must work in unison so that Jane can get about her business. They also understand that existing infrastructure networks will not last forever and that the conditions under which they are operating continue to change.

In the face of changing conditions, urban infrastructure managers have choices to make. They can be faithful stewards of existing systems and hope that changing conditions will not substantially affect the ability of these systems to provide service. They can acknowledge change is coming but hold out for a breakthrough that will make adapting to changing conditions easy. Or they can serve as change agents who recognize that, while change may be difficult, it presents an opportunity to create more positive outcomes.

Faster

A confluence of trends is necessitating new approaches to infrastructure delivery and rapid implementation of these new approaches.

Aging Infrastructure

Current stormwater practices have been around for about 150 years. While this is a short time in the history of cities,  it is a seeming eternity for original infrastructure. As repairs and replacement are becoming more commonplace, there is growing recognition that cities cannot have blind faith in the ability of this 19th and 20th century infrastructure to continue to function as built. An estimated $3.6 trillion is needed to fix these failing systems.

Growing Awareness of Issues

At the same time that infrastructure is showing its age, there is growing awareness of the shortcomings and impacts of current systems.

There are 40 million people across 772 communities that are served by combined sewer systems. These systems send 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater/stormwater into waterways each year.

An EPA report from 2013 found that 55% of the nation’s river and stream miles do not support healthy populations of aquatic life. Dead zones—caused by nutrient pollution—are growing at an alarming rate. A dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, 2.5 times the size hoped for by management efforts.

Flooding is becoming more frequent and more disruptive. A 2014 study by NOAA found 300-900% increases in nuisance flooding compared to the 1960s. This can be partly attributed to climate change, but it is exacerbated by stormwater runoff.

Changing Climate

While many discussions on climate change have focused on warming temperatures, climate change is significantly impacting storm frequency, storm intensity, and drought conditions. For example, a recent Pennsylvania climate change report warns of greater floods, more destructive storms, and hotter summers with average temperatures expected to increase 5°C by 2050.

Utilities are also finding the storms their infrastructure systems are designed to manage are not the ones they are experiencing. There is anecdotal evidence that so-called 100-year storms—which are defined as having a 1% chance of occurring in any given year—are occurring more frequently, bringing into question definitions of such storms, and the design targets for stormwater systems.

People are generally aware of the drought conditions facing the western United States—most notably California—but drought conditions are spreading to the Midwest, Northeast, and portions of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. As drought conditions worsen, stormwater will be viewed more as a necessary source of water than as a byproduct to dispose of.

Growing Population

The U.S. population is projected to increase by roughly a third by 2050. In recent decades, cities have seen surges in population. Driven primarily by millennials and empty-nesters, cities are seeing their populations increase after decades of decline or stagnation. This has increased demand on existing infrastructure systems and also increases the impact when these systems fail to operate effectively.

Learning Curve

Many are uninformed about the infrastructure at work around them. In the face of the challenges affecting current systems, the ability to change will require large education campaigns. No longer will it be acceptable for the public to take their infrastructure for granted. They will need to be brought up to speed and helped to understand why having knowledge of these systems is necessary. And education must continue, explaining relevant issues and the costs and benefits of various solutions.

Cheaper

Urban infrastructure managers need to expand their knowledge from just how infrastructure systems work to how infrastructure currently is and could be financed, taking advantage of existing funding sources and creating new markets and models to build, operate, and maintain infrastructure — and the Exchange will aggressively pursue this agenda through articles and programs.

Funding Shift

Funding traditional infrastructure is a known, straightforward process. Put simply, utilities float bonds, the sale of the bonds fuels investment in infrastructure, and the bonds are repaid through the payment of utility rates. And, the industries that support the construction and maintenance of traditional infrastructure are robust.

The reason this is a straightforward process is that traditional infrastructure has been around long enough for markets to have developed and matured along with it. The markets for green infrastructure are nascent, but growing. There is a certain amount of risk associated with new ways of doing things, which means that those who want to employ new approaches must demonstrate that investments are worthwhile.

Stacking Benefits

One of the primary selling points for green infrastructure is that it provides multiple benefits that traditional infrastructure does not provide. Assuming green and traditional infrastructure cost the same amount of money to function as a utility, green infrastructure provides additional economic, environmental, and social benefits that reduce the need for other investments—something single-purpose, traditional infrastructure cannot do.

Leveraging Partnerships

These additional benefits are not always easy to put on a balance sheet. However, green infrastructure implementers are taking notice that they are not alone in needing to stretch fewer dollars farther. The more utilities can leverage funding with partners who have goals and mandates that can also be furthered by green infrastructure—including parks, open space, and education—the more they can find ways to monetize the multiple benefits of green infrastructure.

Partnerships also extend from other public agencies to public-private partnerships and partnerships with individual property owners. Most land is privately held, which means that for green infrastructure to be effective, utilities will need to figure out how to implement green infrastructure on private property.

Attaining Scale

In addition to the benefits described above, green infrastructure has the potential to become cheaper than traditional infrastructure. As green infrastructure matures, lessons learned and economies of scale can in fact tip the balance. There is a recognition that aggregation may be a key to reducing costs. Individual green infrastructure projects may be costly to implement, but bundling many projects together can result in savings. And, the greater the number of projects there are to implement – and the more willing implementers are to adopt program financing approaches and program structures that allow for greater scaling – the more new markets and industries can develop around green infrastructure implementation.

Time Is Money

The more quickly infrastructure can be put in place, the less impact there may be from the issues facing stormwater managers and the cities they serve. The distributed, piecemeal nature of green infrastructure allows benefits to accrue more quickly. Instead of waiting years for large, traditional infrastructure projects to come online—during which time no benefits accrue—each small green infrastructure project  starts to accrue benefits immediately.

Greener

Green infrastructure presents enormous opportunities – in technology,  finance, structuring and market development – to leverage the necessary investment that makes positive impacts on cities.

Living and Visible Infrastructure

Many of the benefits green infrastructure provides over traditional infrastructure come from the fact that a lot of green infrastructure is both living and visible. While traditional infrastructure is often buried below ground, a large portion of green infrastructure is visible on the surface and supports plants. This enables green infrastructure to help beautify neighborhoods, provide places for respite or to gather, or to connect with and learn about the environment.

Driving Action on Public and Private Lands

In most watersheds, achieving green infrastructure goals will require implementation of GSI on both public and private lands.  A range of possible GSI implementation approaches have been used for both types of lands — but significant constraints remain in many communities and will require attention to allow for optimal development of GSI.

The Exchange

Through member convenings, programs, and subsequent articles, the Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange (The Exchange) will shed light on how green infrastructure can be built faster, cheaper, and greener. The Exchange is an interactive platform where those in the green infrastructure community can share experiences, work through problems, and provide support to achieve common goals.

As Ms. Leuckenhoff noted in her keynote, “Change the legacy. Don’t leave kids with the tab. Thank you for being game changers.”