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October 24th, 2012 By German Lopez | News | Posted In: News, Environment, Economy

Group Pushes Green Water Infrastructure

Annual conference promotes sustainable urban water programs

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Ohioans might not give it much thought outside of paying the water bill, but better water infrastructure can make cities more efficient, healthier and cleaner. That’s why Green For All, a group that promotes clean energy initiatives, is now focusing on cleaner, greener water infrastructure.

A little-known green conference took place in Cincinnati Oct. 15-17. The Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference was in town on those three days, and it brought together leaders from around the U.S. to discuss sustainable water programs for cities. The conference mostly focused on policy ideas, success stories and challenges faced by modern water infrastructure.

For Green For All, attending the conference was about establishing one key element that isn’t often associated with water and sewer systems: jobs. Jeremy Hays, chief strategist for state and local initiatives at Green For All, says this was the focus for his organization.

Hays says it’s important for groups promoting better water infrastructure to include the jobs aspect of the equation. To Hays, while it’s certainly important for cities to establish cleaner and more efficient initiatives, it’s also important to get people back to work. He worries this side of water infrastructure policies are “often left out.”

He points to a report released by Green For All during last year’s conference. The report looked at how investing the $188.4 billion suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage rainwater and preserve water quality in the U.S. would translate into economic development and jobs: “We find that an investment of $188.4 billion spread equally over the next five years would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs.”

To accomplish that robust growth and job development, the report claims infrastructure would have to mimic “natural solutions.” It would focus on green roofs, which are rooftop areas with planted vegetation; urban tree planting; rain gardens, which are areas that use vegetation to reduce storm water runoff; bioswales, which are shallow, vegetated depressions that catch rainwater and redirect it; constructed wetlands; permeable pavements, which are special pavements that allow water to pass through more easily; rainwater harvesting, which uses rain barrels and other storage devices to collect and recycle rainwater; and green alleys, which reduce paved or impervious surfaces with vegetation that reduces storm water runoff.

The report says constructing and maintaining these sorts of programs would produce massive growth, especially in comparison to other programs already supported by presidential candidates and the federal government: “Infrastructure investments create over 16 percent more jobs dollar-for-dollar than a payroll tax holiday, nearly 40 percent more jobs than an across-the-board tax cut, and over five times as many jobs as temporary business tax cuts.”

Hays says the jobs created also don’t have barriers that keep them inaccessible to what he calls “disadvantaged workers”: “A lot of these jobs that we’re focused on in infrastructure, especially green infrastructure, are much more accessible.

They require some training and some skills, but not four years’ worth because it’s skills that you can get at a community college or even on the job.”

Beyond jobs, Green For All supports greener infrastructure due to its health benefits. Hays cited heat waves as one example. He says the extra plants and vegetation planted to support green infrastructure can help absorb heat that’s typically contained by cities.

Hays’ example has a lot of science to stand on. The extra heating effect in cities, known as the urban heat island effect, is caused because cities have more buildings and pavements that absorb and contain heat, more pollution that warms the air and fewer plants that enable evaporation and transpiration through a process called evapotranspiration. The EPA promotes green roofs in order to help combat the urban heat island effect.

Hays says green infrastructure also creates cleaner air because trees capture carbon dioxide and break it down to oxygen. The work of the extra trees can also help reduce global warming, although Hays cautions that the ultimate effect is probably “relatively small.”

But those are only some of the advantages Hays sees in green infrastructure. He says green infrastructure is more resilient against volatile weather events caused by global warming. With green infrastructure, storm water can be managed by systems that collect and actually utilize rainwater to harvest clean water. Even in a world without climate change, that storm water management also reduces water contamination by reducing sewer overflow caused by storm water floods, according to Hays.

However, green infrastructure is not without its problems. Hays acknowledges there are some problems with infrastructure systems that require more year-over-year maintenance: “The green and conventional approach is more cost effective over time, but the way you have to spend money is different. So we need to look at the way we finance infrastructure, and make sure we keep up with innovative technologies.” 

Specifically, green infrastructure relies less on big capital investments and more on ongoing maintenance costs. Hays insists the green infrastructure saves money in the long term with efficiency and by making more use out of natural resources, and the Green For All report supports his claim. But it is more difficult to get a city or state legislator to support long-term funding than it is to get them to support big capital expenditures, Hays says.

Education is also a problem. To a lot of people, the green infrastructure on rooftops and other city areas might seem like “pocket parks,” says Hays. But these areas are nothing like parks; they are meant to absorb and collect rainwater. If the public isn’t educated properly, there could be some confusion as to why the supposed “pocket parks” are flooded so often. Providing that education is going to be another big challenge for public officials adopting green infrastructure, according to Hays.

So what, if anything, is Cincinnati doing to adopt these technologies? In the past, city legislators have looked into rainwater harvesting systems, but not much information is out there. On Thursday, CityBeat will talk to city officials to see how Cincinnati is moving forward.

 
 
 
 
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