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.

New CLF Report Is A Step Toward Solving Stormwater Pollution in RI

Oct 15, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Don't dump - protect the bay. Courtesy of Town of North Kingstown, RI.

Don’t dump! Protect the bay. Courtesy of Town of North Kingstown, RI.

Rhode Island features plenty of natural splendor – among other things, we have more than 50% forest cover, sandy Atlantic beaches in south county, and of course Narragansett Bay. But we also have a lot of concrete. Rhode Island is the country’s second-most densely populated state, with 1,016 inhabitants per square mile. A byproduct of all these people is that 12% of Rhode Island – roughly 145 square miles – is covered with so-called impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt.

Impervious surfaces cause environmental harms. They create “urban heat islands” by absorbing and storing heat from the sun. They exacerbate flooding. And they lead to polluted stormwater runoff – when heavy rain falls on parking lots and driveways, it collects all the nasty stuff that has accumulated on the ground and carries it, unfiltered and untreated, into Narragansett Bay (along with raw sewage from overflowing sewage treatment systems). The result is unhealthy water.

For years, CLF has been exploring different ways we can use existing laws to address stormwater runoff. We’ve developed an innovative approach to expanding the scope of Clean Water Act permitting programs (read our press release or this post from the Environmental Law Prof Blog for more details). And, here in Rhode Island, we have just released a report detailing how cities and towns can use a decade-old state law to address the problems of impervious cover and stormwater runoff.

Our report focuses on the Rhode Island Stormwater Management and Utility District Act of 2002, which allows cities and towns to work independently or together to create Stormwater Management Districts. Under the Act, Stormwater Management Districts may charge fees to “each contributor of runoff” so long as any fee is proportionate to the amount of runoff from a given property.

Stormwater fees serve three major purposes. First, they allow Stormwater Management Districts to undertake pollution abatement projects, attacking the stormwater pollution problem head-on. Second, they create incentives for property owners to reduce their footprint of impervious cover –in fact, the Act even allows credits for property owners who undertake more ambitious projects like collection basins or filtration structures on their  property. And third, they stimulate local economies by encouraging property owners to tear out concrete and replace it with plants or other permeable cover. The end result is less pavement, more green space, and less pollution in Narragansett Bay – all good things.

Although Rhode Island’s Act has been on the books for over ten years now, no city or town has yet taken the leap of creating a Stormwater Management District. In producing our report, CLF worked closely with Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Bays, Rivers, and Watersheds Coordination Team to identify questions that municipal leaders might have. Our analysis suggests that there are no significant legal obstacles standing in their way: now is the right time for cities and towns to work together to create Stormwater Management Districts and begin greening the Narragansett Bay watershed. We look forward to working with local governments and other advocacy groups in the coming days to make this happen.

Download a copy of CLF’s Rhode Island Stormwater Report.

Sweet Success–Sugarbush Stream Restored

May 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

When people think of Sugarbush Resort, they envision scenes like the one pictured below: high mountain peaks blanketed with pristine snow beckoning skiers to swoosh down the slopes.  Of course when springtime comes that snow melts, feeding small streams that flow first into the iconic Mad River and eventually to Lake Champlain.  These high mountain streams are incredibly important yet sensitive and vulnerable links in the clean water chain.



A skier rests on a sunny day at Sugarbush. Photo by pinneyshaun @ Flickr Creative Commons

Rice Brook is one of the streams that flows through the heart of the resort area.  Over the years, runoff polluted with sediment from gravel roads, driveways, and parking lots degraded water quality and habitat conditions in the stream. By 1996, the Brook no longer supported a healthy community of aquatic wildlife, leading state officials and EPA to “list” the Brook as “impaired.”

Sadly, it was a story unfolding around build-out at other ski areas across the state and in areas around lower elevation streams where forest and farmland was being converted into stripmalls and other pavement-heavy uses.  By the early-2000’s, sixteen other Vermont streams were also officially listed as impaired due to runoff pollution, a.k.a. “stormwater,” with many more placed at risk of impairment.

During this time, Conservation Law Foundation and other partners began an 0ngoing advocacy campaign pressuring regulators to enforce requirements in clean water laws designed to ensure that developers of properties that contributed polluted runoff to streams were doing their part for cleanup.

Sugarbush got ahead of the curve in accepting responsibility and committing the resources necessary to do its part for clean water moving forward.  Sugarbush partnered with the environmental consulting firm of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB) to tackle the problem.

Through implementation of a time-bound, state-approved “Water Quality Remediation Plan,” the Sugarbush team restored clean water and healthy aquatic communities to Rice Brook, creating a template for action that can be copied by others responsible for restoring degraded streams around the state and the region. Sugarbush and VHB:

  • Identified the specific sources of the problem
  • Established cleanup targets by studying conditions in healthy streams similar to Rice Brook
  • Designed and implemented “best management practices” and structures to restore the landscape’s natural flood storage and pollutant-removal capacity
  • Educated resort employees and contractors about streambank restoration, erosion prevention, and other water quality practices
  • Monitored water quality and aquatic organisms to track progress
  • Committed resources to ongoing operation and maintenance of runoff control and treatment structures

In recognition of the results, EPA approved the removal of Rice Brook from the list of impaired waters and Governor Peter Shumlin bestowed Sugarbush and VHB with a 2012 Environmental Excellence Award.

Too often, critics complain that it is either too expensive or too difficult to restore clean water to degraded rivers and streams. In their application for the Environmental Excellence Award, Sugarbush and VHB answered those critics, pointing out the multiple economic benefits to the tourist-based economy from their successful cleanup effort, including:

  • water supply protection
  • access to recreation such as swimming and fishing
  • aesthetic enjoyment of clean waters by resort guests and others
  • ecological sustainability
  • greater certainty in future permitting processes based on proven approaches to mitigate development runoff impacts

Congratulations to Sugarbush and VHB for showing Vermont how sweet clean water success can be.

Must-see TV: A New Reverence for Water

Apr 10, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Water is the essential life-giving force on Earth; we literally cannot live without it. Compared to many parts of the nation and the world, New England is blessed with an abundance of clean, fresh water. Yet in overabundance water can also be a powerfully destructive force. Tropical Storm Irene reminded Vermonters of this truism last year when flood waters washed away roads, bridges, homes, and livelihoods. Fortunately, many of the same things New Englanders can do to protect ourselves from flooding also help to keep our water clean and full of healthy aquatic wildlife.

Don’t believe it? Well, to quote the John Fogerty song, “I know it’s true, oh so true, ’cause I saw it on TV.” Vermont Public Television to be exact, which is broadcasting documentary films in the Bloom series produced by the Emmy Award-winning team at Bright Blue Media. The clip below is from the upcoming episode “A New Reverence for Water,” which highlights emerging solutions to the pollution and flooding problems that poorly controlled “stormwater” runoff from the developed landscape are causing in communities throughout New England.

If this clips whets your appetite, you can see the full episode this Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on Vermont Public Television  (or you can watch it on You Tube here), right after another episode showing at 8:00 p.m.–Bloom: The Agricultural Renaissance (also on YouTube here).

CLF advocates (myself included) appear along with regulators, academics, local and national policymakers, and business-people with experience implementing the pollution solutions highlighted in the films. Author and founder Bill McKibben and United Nations Senior Adviser on Water Maude Barlow are among those also featured in the documentaries that are narrated by Academy Award Winning Actor Chris Cooper.

From Vermont to Portland, Oregon, the documentaries depict pollution solutions and illustrates how simple, affordable changes to our built environment and our food production will help us ensure enough clean water and flood resiliency. It’s truly must-see TV.


Innovative Stormwater Approaches Essential for a Healthy Great Bay

Mar 9, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Aerial View of Site - Porous Asphalt Shows as Dark Gray

Stormwater pollution continues to be one of the greatest threats to the health of the Great Bay estuary. Fortunately, innovative approaches to development can dramatically reduce and even eliminate polluted runoff and the damage it can cause to our water bodies. We have a great example of innovation here in the estuary’s watershed, in Greenland.

In 2003, a large retail development was proposed to be built on the banks of Pickering Brook, roughly a mile upstream of Great Bay. CLF voiced major concerns about the many pollutants that would run off of the retail center’s massive parking lots – pollutants such as metals, bacteria and nutrients – and the harm they would cause to Pickering Brook and Great Bay. In response, the project’s developer agreed to work with CLF and the UNH Stormwater Center to re-design their approach to managing stormwater.

The result? With guidance from the UNH Stormwater Center, the developer constructed a large portion of its parking lot using porous asphalt – an innovative approach that allows rainwater and snowmelt to percolate through the paved surface into a layer of sand and gravel, below. Porous pavement is an important and highly effective new tool in reducing polluted runoff; the Greenland installation is the largest porous pavement facility in the Northeast.

The developer also constructed a gravel wetland to treat stormwater from the site, before it reaches Pickering Brook. Recent monitoring by the UNH Stormwater Center confirms that these innovative systems are working – greatly reducing pollution that would otherwise occur.

Working together, CLF, the UNH Stormwater Center and the developer showed that innovative approaches can work – and can make a difference. To put Great Bay, the Piscataqua River and the estuary as a whole on a path to recovery, innovation and creative solutions will be essential. One of my primary tasks as the Great Bay-Piscataqua Waterkeeper is to work with stakeholders to identify and promote innovative solutions to the problems facing the estuary. We’re extremely fortunate to have the Stormwater Center as a resource not only for Great Bay, but for the nation. And we’re fortunate to have successful models to be replicated in the future.

To view the UNH Stormwater Center’s “case study” description of this project, click here.

For additional information about the Waterkeeper, visit us on our website or Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.


Shark Week Series: Risk and Fear

Aug 5, 2011 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

This is the fifth and last post in our Shark Week Series. Happy Shark Week, everyone!

Many rational people are very afraid of sharks. We can tell ourselves that the odds of attack are extremely low, especially in New England, but the primal image of the gaping maw and jagged teeth is hard to drive away with logic. As David Ropeik points out in his thought-provoking book, How Risky Is It, Really?, a risk feels bigger if you think it can happen to you, regardless of the odds. Sharks attacks are easy to imagine. However, if you look at the numbers, you should be way more worried about the drive to the beach, or lightning. The odds of death by shark each year in the U.S. are 1 in 3,748,067. You are way more likely to die from a dog attack. Here are some other things that are deadlier than a shark:

  • Car accident – you have a 1 in 84 chance of dying in a car crash each year
  • Death by sun/heat exposure – 1 in 13,729 per year
  • Death by fireworks – 1 in 340,733 per year

I do worry about sharks. Almost anyone who spends time in the ocean thinks about them. But I worry a lot more about getting sick from polluted water.

Potentially harmful bacterial pollution enters our coastal environment in partially or untreated wastewater and stormwater, in septic and cesspool waste, and from animal waste on or near beaches. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, illnesses caused by recreational use of contaminated water are on the increase. For the fifth year in a row, beach closure or advisory days in 2010 topped 24,000 nationally, the majority which are due to bacterial contamination. Swimming in pathogen-contaminated water can result in respiratory infections, pink eye, stomach flu and many other health problems.

Many popular beaches have water-testing programs to help keep swimmers safe, but the testing is generally not daily, and the results are not “real time.” It’s a good idea to avoid the water during or after a storm, when bacteria levels are likely to be higher, since some of our stormwater is untreated. Worse still, many towns and cities in New England have antiquated Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) systems that are designed to release untreated sewage and stormwater into our rivers and oceans during storms. Some beaches close down as a result of storms, without even being tested, if it is known that CSOs will be flowing into the water. Fortunately, some CSOs are being upgraded and eliminated. But for now, there is still a very real risk of illness from swimming in contaminated water.

There is risk in everything we do. I’m willing to risk an encounter with one of the “Men in Gray Suits” if it means I get to keep surfing. But I’m going to be very careful about swimming in polluted water.

My point is not that we should be too afraid to enjoy our amazing beaches and ocean life. But, that we should work to protect them. Join CLF in advocating for our National Ocean Policy, in protecting the Clean Water Act, and in ensuring we leave a legacy of protecting these special places.

One town’s solution to cost of proposed stormwater regulations- CLF’s Cynthia Liebman responds

Aug 5, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Cynthia Liebman is a staff attorney at CLF Massachusetts. (Photo credit: Leslie Boudreau)

The most expensive stormwater runoff problem to fix is the one that’s not addressed. That’s the first point CLF Massachusetts Staff Attorney Cynthia Liebman makes in this smart letter to the editor published yesterday in the MetroWest Daily News. The letter is in response to the paper’s July 26 article stating that officials in the town of Milford, MA are considering suing EPA over the costs of EPA’s proposed regulations to clean up toxic stormwater runoff.

“Toxic algae blooms and other symptoms of pollution from paved areas undermine the clean water and recreational opportunities that make our towns desirable places to live, visit, and do business,” she writes. “EPA’s new pollution control program in the communities that discharge into the Charles River and its feeder streams provides more equitable cost sharing than the status quo.” More >

Three decades in the making, CLF celebrates a new, clean Boston Harbor

Jun 23, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The new storage tunnel will result in significantly cleaner water for beachgoers at Carson Beach in South Boston. Photo credit:

It’s been a busy day for South Boston on several fronts – but the dawning of a new era for a transformed Boston Harbor and the environmentalists, legislators and other officials who have been fighting for a clean harbor for nearly three decades. Today marks the opening of a massive sewage holding tank – called a CSO (combined sewer overflow) storage tunnel –  under South Boston that will store gallons of stormwater that would normally overwhelm the city’s sewer system and cause untreated sewage to be released into Boston Harbor. The change will make the beach “one of the cleanest in America” and bring the rate of beach closures down from eight per summer to one roughly every five years, according to this front page article in today’s Boston Globe.

It’s the gratifying ending to a story in which CLF has played a lead role since the beginning. Twenty-eight years ago, CLF filed one of the key lawsuits ordering that the harbor be cleaned up. Today, CLF’s Peter Shelley is one of the only original lawyers involved in the massive and long-running court case who has seen it through to fruition.  Key participants in this morning’s ribbon cutting ceremony for the new storage tunnel came on to the scene decades after the filing, in 1983, of the still-pending case that still bears the label Conservation Law Foundation vs. Metropolitan District Commission (the now-disbanded state agency that used to oversee the water and sewerage systems of Greater Boston).

The ceremony today reflected back on the long struggle to clean the harbor but, appropriately, also looked to the future.  Frederick Laskey, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), the state authority created to execute on the massive harbor cleanup, spoke eloquently about the collaboration between governments, business the advocacy community and the neighborhoods that was needed to execute on a vision of a cleaner harbor and beaches. Laskey especially noted the courage of the representatives of the many municipalities in the Greater Boston region in accepting the regional nature of the project and the need to spread the cost of creating swimmable beaches and a clean harbor across the whole metropolitan area.

State Senator Jack Hart, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan (who also serves as Chairman of the MWRA Board) and  Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Edward Lambert echoed Laskey’s remarks, emphasizing the importance of community collaboration and the value of clean beaches.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns, who today presides over CLF v. MDC and the continuing harbor cleanup, discussed the hard work needed to get to this day and offered a tribute to the vision of Judge David Mazzone, who had previously handled the case. In 2004, during his final illness in 2004, Mazzone handed the case over to Judge Stearns, conveying his belief that a CSO tunnel was needed and “could be completed by May 2011” for the cost of less than $250 million (in this morning’s speech, Stearns noted that the project came in right on that schedule and in fact under the initial cost estimate).

EPA Regional Administrator Curt Spalding spoke about the difficulty of executing on a project of this magnitude and the importance of core environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, which he proudly noted was championed by another Rhode Islander, Senator John Chafee, that provided clear direction regarding our national policy and the need to create clean and swimmable waters.

Thanks to the tenacity of CLF and others, today’s parents don’t have to worry that a day at the beach could make their children sick, and a new generation of kids won’t have beach closings put a damper on their summer days. But our work is nowhere near complete.  Yes, we need to continue to ensure that the right infrastructure, like this CSO structure in South Boston, is in place to treat our stormwater appropriately. But even more importantly we need to build and manage our buildings, our land and our roads in a way that recaptures as much rain water as possible.  We need to treat rain and snow as the precious resources that they are, moving away from a view that these gifts from above are a waste product that needs to be treated and shunted off into the sea. With those notions in mind, Massachusetts will continue to set an example for the region and the nation of the right way to restore a precious community resource and iconic piece of New England’s history.

Avoiding Omaha: Portland should abate its CSO discharges sooner rather than later

Jun 17, 2011 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Welcome to Omaha? This is the first year that the College World Series will be played at the new TD Ameritrade Park. Business owners are concerned that the event will be remembered instead by the smell of sewage. (Photo credit: Stadium Journey)

On Monday, June 20, the Portland City Council will vote on a proposal for the Tier III projects of its Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Plan. Pursuant to this vote, the city will decide how long it wants to continue discharging sewage and other pollutants from industrial wastewater and stormwater runoff into Portland’s waterways through its combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Portland’s CSO abatement project originated in 1991 when the city entered into a Consent Decree with the Board of Environmental Protection to resolve the city’s ongoing violations of state and federal law through its unpermitted discharges into waterways. Under the city’s initial Master Plan, it agreed to abate discharges from 33 of its CSOs by 2008. Although 2008 has come and gone, the city is still years away from completing its CSO abatement project. More specifically, the city is debating whether Tier III of its abatement plan should be completed in 15 years or in 25 years. The project is going to cost ratepayers under either time frame, but the sooner the city abates these discharges, the sooner water quality in Portland improves and the businesses that depend upon good water quality benefit.

While it may be easy to overlook water pollution since it can be difficult to see, it is not easy to ignore the unpleasant and unmistakable stench of untreated sewage. Just ask the residents and business owners in Omaha, Nebraska, as well as the thousands of people descending upon Omaha for the college world series, which Omaha is hosting for the first time—in a brand new stadium.

Like Portland, Omaha still has a CSO system in place.  And right now, Omaha is discharging sewage into the Missouri River because the Missouri’s flooding has overwhelmed Omaha’s wastewater treatment system, just in time for “record crowds” which must reluctantly tolerate the stench.  Some business owners have expressed concern over the affect that the smell of sewage will have, but as the stadium’s marketing manager pointed out, there is not much that can be done other than “deal[ing] with it” and hoping that visitors’ lasting impression of Omaha is one of great baseball rather than the foul smell of sewage.

Fortunately for Portland, it has been spared such unfortunate circumstances—for now. But instead of just tolerating the problems caused by continued use of its CSO system, Portland should, as urged by CLF, “deal with it” by abating CSO discharges sooner rather than later, a task that the Public Works Department, through its work in recent years, has shown it is more than capable of handling.  Twenty-five years is too long to sit around holding our breath and hoping that what is happening in Omaha does not happen in Portland.