Greening the Infrastructure

There is much talk of infrastructure out there in the media these days. This is because infrastructure–the roads, buildings, water systems, sewers, schools, rails and hundreds of other physically engineered underpinnings of modern life in 21st century America–are getting a giant monetary shot in the arm.  A sizable chunk of the  $700 plus billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act advanced by the Obama administration was aimed to rebuild, improve or expand infrastructure. That money has begun to take roost in thousands of projects around the country.  You can get an interesting look at these by viewing a ProPublica website detailing who spends what and where it goes. Over $7 billion went specifically to water projects according to the Water Environment Federation.

In Oregon, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act poured $44 million into the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, $28 million into the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and about $4.5K into water quality planning (604b) grants.

With regards to water, we are mostly concerned with two kinds of infrastructure. The first are the water systems that deliver it in a usable and (usually) safe state to million of drinking water taps, agricultural fields, businesses, parks or public spaces.

stormsewer grate

Stormsewer Grate, Photo by R. Emanuel

The second chunk of infrastructure takes the waste water away from our fields, parks, homes and businesses.  That infrastructure is critical from an engineering, industrial, and public safety perspective. Often the water is laced with bacteria from human and animal waste, organic chemicals and heavy metals from our industrial processes, flushes petroleum from  roads, carries fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture, gardens, and landscaping.  For much of human history, we disposed of that water with the idea that “dilution is the solution to pollution,” in that we got rid of it quickly enough and far enough away from human settlements, it would no longer be a problem. In cities and towns, we focused on sewers to transport and treat human or commercial waste, and stormsewers for the water that falls on our hard surfaces (i.e., those that don’t absorb water the way a native landscape of plants and soil normally do).  In all cases, we have designed convenient ways to ferry water out of town and into the nearest water body where it will dilute and go away. Unfortunately, we have discovered that there is no “away” for stormwater and its pollutants.

All of this we call “gray” infrastructure. And it’s in serious need of work, but also some re-thinking.  One way to look at the dilemma of what to do with stormwater and its expensive, deteriorating infrastructure is to try to replace it where possible with “green infrastructure.”  What is “green infrastructure”?  The non-profit Conservation Fund defines it this way:

Green infrastructure is strategically planned and managed networks of natural lands, working landscapes and other open spaces that conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations.

The foundation of green infrastructure networks are their natural elements – woodlands, wetlands, rivers, grasslands – that work together as a whole to sustain ecological values and functions. Healthy functioning natural or restored ecological systems are essential to ensure the availability of the network’s ecological services.

Suburbs against a park.

Suburbs abut a park.

Additional elements and functions can then be added to the network, depending on the desires and needs of the designers – working lands, trails and other recreational features, cultural and historic sites. These all can be incorporated into green infrastructure networks that contribute to the health and quality of life for America’s communities.

In the case of stormwater management, we should consider the native and urban forests, native and non-native landscapes as places to absorb and process rainwater, to offset the negative impacts of building more hard surfaces (rooftops, sidewalks, roadways, parking lots, etc.) which generate more stormwater runoff.  We can look at it at multiple scales as the Conservation Fund notes:

While green infrastructure planning occurs at a broad ‘landscape scale,’ elements of the over-arching network can be found at all scales, from state-wide, to the county, city, and parcel/site scale. Critical elements of the implementation strategy, such as low-impact development practices (LID), conservation developments, green/grey interface, etc., are necessary components to any successful green infrastructure plan, and are frequently found at the site/parcel scale.

Sewer Outfall

Sewer Outfall

Part of the problem then with the current thinking about stimulating the economy and re-building the United States’ infrastructure is that much of the money that is focused on water is NOT focused on protecting the natural landscapes or hydrologic process that sustain clean water at the source, or keep it from becoming a problem like stormwater that we must dispose at our expense.  Unfortunately, it seems that we have a tendency to do exactly what Albert Einstein noted was a bad idea: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Let’s try hard to think differently this time. As we make decisions on whether to build (or improve) the stormsewer for that development just outside of town, why not try some smart site design to save most of the existing vegetation on or adjacent to the site.  Let’s think about restoring or conserving the green infrastructure before rebuilding all of the gray. If the analysis of Low Impact Development by the good folks at EcoNorthwest is correct, it might even save us some green.


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