By Alice R. Baker
To many of us, when we think of clean water, the first thing that might come to mind is a trickling, tree-lined stream meandering its way down a hillside. That’s certainly a great example of clean water, and it’s an image that we at PennFuture and our many partners in the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed strive to protect. But, a good deal of work to achieve clean water, especially for our cities’ drinking supplies, is done in urban settings – like the empty lots and crowded alleyways of our urban centers. That’s why we are so pleased with the effort that the Philadelphia Water Department is undertaking to not just protect our water, but also to clean and beautify the City – and even save its residents money – in the process.
Despite our common conception of “cleansing rain” and “pure snow,” one of the biggest challenges to improving water quality involves managing the stormwater that originates as rain and melting snow. As the precipitation runs down rooftops and over dirty streets and sidewalks, it collects pollutants such as oil, fertilizers, litter, and pet waste, with potentially harmful impacts to drinking water sources. In areas that drain to the municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) found in many municipalities, polluted runoff drains directly into our streams and rivers without being treated. In cities with combined sewer systems, that stormwater mixes with sewage from homes and businesses. The combined flow can overload the system, resulting in combined sewer overflows, which means that raw sewage is discharged directly into our rivers and streams without being treated.
Faced with this challenge (and the regulatory obligations that go with it) several years ago, Philadelphia Water tackled the problem head-on. It committed itself to a 25-year plan, known as the Green City, Clean Waters program, to reduce polluted stormwater runoff primarily using “green infrastructure” techniques. Green infrastructure takes advantage of nature’s own infiltration and evaporation processes to control stormwater flow and remove pollutants. In the long-term, it has been found to be the most economically, environmentally, and socially beneficial form of stormwater management. Green infrastructure includes, among other things, rain gardens, tree trenches, green roofs, porous pavement, and rain barrels. These techniques all allow water to naturally soak into soil or evaporate into the air without carrying pollutants into our streams and rivers. At the same time, they provide residents with cleaner air, more attractive parks and streets, and a healthier community.
We have now completed the first five years of that 25-year process, and Philadelphia Water is celebrating that milestone by announcing that it has surpassed the expectations set for the program. Philadelphia Water reports that it has created over 800 “greened acres” in the City and reduced combined sewer overflows by 1.5 billion gallons annually. This is a wonderful success to be sure and one that took the work of the committed Philadelphia Water staff, developers, City residents, and environmental organizations like many in the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed. PennFuture is proud of the role that it has played to help Philadelphia Water accomplish these milestones. As a member of Philadelphia Water’s Development Services Committee and the Green City, Clean Waters Steering Committee and a participant in Philadelphia Water’s 2016 rate-setting proceeding, PennFuture has advocated for a strong commitment to the green infrastructure initiatives of Green City, Clean Waters.
Although it is certainly appropriate to pause for a moment to reflect on the City’s progress so far, we cannot become complacent. Ensuring that Philadelphia Water will be able to continue on its current trajectory will require long-term commitment from all of the groups that have brought it this far – and more partners in the future. Although green infrastructure has proved itself to be the best strategy for managing stormwater, it is still relatively new, so there is a temptation in some quarters to push for more traditional (and less effective) “gray infrastructure” techniques like tunnels and storm drains. Citizens of Philadelphia can help prevent this from happening by looking for opportunities to implement green infrastructure in their neighborhoods and supporting the green projects that have been constructed.
Although people who live and work outside the City of Philadelphia may not be as readily able to participate directly in the Green City, Clean Waters program, we can use Philadelphia’s efforts as inspiration to support green infrastructure in our own communities and backyards. These projects, whether they are the installation of rain gardens in our parks or the use of rain barrels in our backyards, will help to reduce pollution and beautify our neighborhoods. As we do, we will all be contributing to a cleaner Delaware River as well. That’s an effort worth celebrating!
Alice R. Baker is a staff attorney at PennFuture who works on matters concerning water quality protection and stormwater management in southeastern Pennsylvania. Recently, PennFuture has worked extensively on ways to improve Pennsylvania’s MS4 permitting program. PennFuture currently serves on the Steering Committee and as Pennsylvania State Lead for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed and spearheads efforts across the state to advocate for public policy to restore and protect the environment, safeguard public health, and reduce the consequences of climate change within Pennsylvania and beyond.