Green Infrastructure Projects Create Jobs for People Who Need Them

Mar 13, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Right now leaders throughout Rhode Island are taking a hard look at stormwater pollution – in fact, over the weekend, I was on a panel discussing solutions to the this critical threat to the health of our waterways. One especially exciting solution is green infrastructure.

What is green infrastructure? Green infrastructure uses natural processes to manage and filter stormwater. Rain gardens, for example, can collect stormwater runoff and allow soils and plants to absorb it gradually so it doesn’t flow rapidly to water bodies. Bioswales are similar; they are long, narrow channels landscaped with plants to collect, absorb, and filter runoff. Rain gardens and bioswales stand in contrast to so-called “gray” or traditional stormwater-management infrastructure, including large concrete pipes and basins for controlling stormwater flow. One major advantage of green infrastructure is combating the heat-island effect: Concrete absorbs and stores heat from the sun, creating heat islands and exacerbating climate-related problems in urban environments. Green infrastructure, on the other hand, brings relief on hot summer days.

photo credit: Aaron Volkening via photopin cc

Green infrastructure can include rain gardens, which are one way of managing and filtering stormwater runoff before it reaches our rivers, lakes, and ocean. Photo credit: Aaron Volkening via photopin cc

Green infrastructure has huge potential to mitigate stormwater pollution and increase our ability to withstand the effects of a changing climate. But just as important is its potential to create truly vibrant neighborhoods where they’re needed most. This means, for example, replacing vacant lots with rain gardens in neighborhoods with the highest unemployment (which are also often highly paved). This in turn means people from these neighborhoods getting paid to create and maintain the rain gardens. On top of all this, rain gardens and other green projects create prettier streets and higher property values. And, of course, prettier streets lead to more people outside enjoying their neighborhood.

But let’s take a closer look at the question of who benefits economically from green infrastructure projects – in particular, who gets the jobs necessary to create and maintain these projects (after all, we are talking about Rhode Island, the state with the nation’s worst unemployment rate). The answer is that the greatest economic benefit flows through the communities where the projects are. Here are some numbers for context: a report from the University of Maryland has shown that spending $100 million on green infrastructure in Lynchburg, Virginia would create about 1,400 jobs. And a report from the national organization Green For All (pdf) notes that Los Angeles, California has already seen an estimated increase of more than 2,000 jobs by spending $166 million on green infrastructure projects. What’s the best part of this job growth? Generally speaking, about three quarters of these jobs are local. These local jobs then create a positive feedback loop that generates considerably more local economic activity: a particularly high $3.15 for every dollar spent in Lynchburg (according to the University of Maryland), $2 for every dollar spent in L.A. (according to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce).

Some of these local benefits flow from the very nature of green infrastructure projects. A rain garden, after all, will be installed and maintained by landscapers who are unlikely to travel from far away. This means that it is important to site green infrastructure projects in communities where they can have the most impact both environmentally and economically. And one way to make sure that economic benefits go to the communities that need them most is to enact a community benefits policy.

A community benefits policy ensures that green-infrastructure decision-makers consider community need in figuring out where to site projects – and that community members have a say in the decision-making process too. For example, the utility that administers the stormwater program for San Francisco, California has two complementary policies: an Environmental Justice Policy and a Community Benefits Policy. Among other things, these policies require the utility to “recognize community need for employment through continuation and expansion of workforce development strategies, including green job opportunities.” It seems pretty straightforward to conclude that when decision makers consider community need for green jobs, projects are more likely to be sited in communities that actually need green jobs. Another method used by the San Francisco utility is obtaining commitments in professional service contracts – ensuring that a certain percentage of a contractor’s employees are local, for example.

All this is a long way of saying that there are many, many good reasons to invest in green infrastructure projects as a major part of our efforts to address stormwater pollution here in Rhode Island and throughout New England. And it is worth remembering that if we continue to approach these projects the way we’ve always done it, we’re probably missing some great opportunities to enhance our local neighborhoods and economy, not to mention local waterways.

CLF Settlement Maintains Momentum on Stream Cleanup

Oct 8, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

For more than a decade, CLF has worked to secure the Clean Water Act’s promise of water quality that supports healthy fish populations and is safe for recreation in all the degraded urban streams flowing to Lake Champlain. A new CLF settlement with Vermont environmental regulators helps continue the momentum toward fulfillment of that promise.

Several years ago, CLF won a series of court cases that resulted in Vermont adopting pollution reduction targets for urban streams afflicted with an excess of fouled runoff. Some of that polluted runoff comes from the network of storm sewers and pipes owned by cities and towns. The runoff in these “municipal separate storm sewer systems” can contain a range of harmful pollutants including:

  • sediment
  • road salt
  • oil slicks (those toxic rainbow slicks left behind by leaking cars)
  • toxic metals
  • bacteria (from animal waste)
  • heat (think of how hot pavement gets in the summer–that heat transfers into rainwater coursing over blacktop)
  • phosphorous (the key culprit in causing algae blooms in Lake Champlain)

In addition, these storm sewers are often too efficient at clearing rainwater and snowmelt from paved surfaces.  The result can be flash flooding in streams swollen by unusually heavy flows caused by our artificial manipulation of the natural landscape’s drainage.

stream-cleanup

Green Infrastructure helps soak up precipitation and filter out pollutants running off paved surfaces. As an added bonus, these pollution control measures make urban environments look nicer and can help mitigate flash flooding. Photo Credit: Vermont Agency of Natural Resources

 

Scientists who developed the pollution reduction targets for Vermont’s urban streams have determined that there is a strong link between the overall amount of runoff being discharged and the amount of pollution reaching streams. The solution is to slow the flow and allow more precipitation to soak into the ground rather than run off paved surfaces.  When placed in enough locations throughout our built landscape, “Green Infrastructure” such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and constructed wetlands can restore the land’s natural ability to soak up precipitation and filter out pollutants before they reach streams.

Earlier this year, CLF challenged the permit regulating discharges of polluted runoff from numerous municipal storm sewers throughout Vermont. The permit is one of the main mechanisms for translating runoff reduction targets into on-the-ground pollution control measures like green infrastructure. Under the challenged permit, each polluting municipality designs its own cleanup plan, determining which pollution control measures to deploy and where to deploy them so as to achieve maximum runoff reduction. Unfortunately, the final version of the permit gave polluting municipalities up to twenty years to clean up their acts and also prevented meaningful public review of the cleanup plans each polluting city and town was devising for itself.

In response to these flaws, CLF challenged the permit. Fortunately, after extended settlement negotiations, Vermont environmental officials agreed that the permit needed fixing to ensure timely, transparent, and accountable cleanup efforts by each regulated city and town. The parties devised a settlement that addresses the flaws in the original permit related to the timing and transparency of the cleanup plans. First, Vermont officials have agreed that each municipality’s proposed cleanup plan will be subject to public notice and comment before agency approval, creating an opportunity for citizens to appeal any inadequate cleanup plans to the Environmental Court. Second, Vermont officials agreed to rescind the blanket twenty-year timeframe for cleanup plan completion contained in the original permit. Instead, Vermont regulators will make an individualized decision about the appropriateness of a schedule of compliance for each plan; those decisions will also be subject to public notice, comment, and appeal when necessary. The settlement maintains momentum in the restoration process for these streams and restores bedrock procedural public participation safeguards that are hallmarks of the Clean Water Act.

A “Green” Facelift for The Big Apple’s Waterfront

Mar 16, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the city’s 10-year Waterfront Vision and Action Agenda.  New England cities should take note of this forward-thinking plan, which knits together a dizzying array of restoration activities to ensure that NYC’s rivers, harbors and 500-mile waterfront remain world class amenities for its residents and visitors.

The waterfront plan incorporates key elements of NYC’s Green Infrastructure Plan, released last September.

Among other things, NYC plans to invest over $4 billion over the next 20 years in modernizing infrastructure to control pollution to the city’s waterways.  Recognizing it would need to invest huge sums to protect and enhance its critically valuable waterfront, the city did its homework.  Experts found that using green infrastructure approaches to reduce sewer overflows over the 20 years would result in cost savings of $1.5 billionNYC’s vision for restoring water quality now includes a mix of strategic investments in some “grey” or hard piped infrastructure – the sort cities have employed for the past century – along with a hefty proportion of green technologies.  In addition, the plan includes $900 million in private investment.

One inch at a time

Green stormwater management techniques, often referred to as “Low Impact Development,” model nature’s way of handling runoff from paved areas during storms – the runoff is cleansed by soil and plants in vegetated areas, then evaporates or is filtered back into the ground.  Wetlands, green roofs and even specially designed rain gardens and street trees can serve this function.  Dumping polluted stormwater runoff into natural wetlands isn’t on its own an acceptable solution, so green infrastructure approaches add new vegetated areas where the treatment occurs.

The status quo is that street runoff co-mingles with human wastewater in the sanitary sewer system, overwhelming the pipes and treatment plants.  Instead, the city plans to send street runoff into new green treatment areas designed to manage stormwater.  NYC has set its sights on diverting runoff from the first inch of rainfall from 10% of paved area. Keeping this quantity of runoff out of the combined sewer system, experts predict, will have dramatic water quality benefits.

Everybody pays, everybody wins

NYC’s waterfront vision is an impressive example of coordination across a tangle of city and state agencies, public and private entities.  The city’s action plan to cut back sewer overflows relies on public and private entities to restore water quality over the next 20 years.  The city will soon require new development to include state-of-the-art stormwater management, recognizing that private property owners will benefit from the improved waterfront and the public goals cannot be accomplished without their contributions.  If all goes as planned, many more New Yorkers will enjoy views of blue harbors from atop green roofs…