For the Conservation Curious

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Green Infrastructure is Great February 7, 2014

I’ve been thinking about green infrastructure a lot these days. Part of my job involves the promotion of natural storm water management practices for municipalities, homeowners and other land managers. Go to www.pasustainablelands.org to learn more about what I do. I am excited to see videos like the one created by Penn State about all the wonderful green stormwater projects Philadelphia is doing. I highly recommend you watch it at www.waterblues.org. It is very inspiring.

Last week I attended a storm water management workshop for municipal officials. The presenters mentioned both traditional “grey” management solutions like dry basins and pipes, as well as greener alternatives like rain gardens, swales and porous pavement. The engineer was hard pressed to hide his excitement for the traditional structures. It’s what he was taught in school and probably what he focuses much of his time on still today. That frustrated me a bit. This was a workshop put on by a well-known environmental advocacy organization, so to have a presenter who clearly preferred the old, less environmentally friendly practices was a bit of a surprise to me.

When they did talk about the green stormwater solutions they did an ok job with it, but they did leave some things out. My colleague raised her hand and spoke at length about the role and value of trees in green stormwater systems, something the presenters left out completely. According to American Forests, a single, mature tree can absorb up to 100 gallons of water per day (depending on the species). Think about the flood reduction benefits, not to mention pollutant filtration and all the other benefits of trees for air quality and human health! Trees are amazing and an overlooked feature of things like rain gardens and swales. We need more trees in green stormwater management projects! Here is a great publication talking about the benefits of trees to stormwater management: http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/programs/uesd/uep/products/11/800TreeCityUSABulletin_55.pdf.

At lunch I sat with a few borough and township managers and public works staff. We talked about their experiences dealing with storm water problems and whether or not their municipalities use green infrastructure. One borough guy said that some residents thought the tree pits and rain gardens looked “weedy”. This is all a matter of education (explaining that native plantings don’t always have a manicured look, and that’s ok; making sure the benefits of those features are known) and maintenance (if the beds aren’t weeded and properly mulched of course they may grow actual weeds. You could sense the misgivings he had about these green features. But when I drive through this borough, when all the flowers are in bloom and the trees are leafing out, I see the beauty that wasn’t there two years ago. It just takes time. People resist change.

The worst part of the workshop came when a representative from the township supervisors association stood up and expressed his distrust of green infrastructure. He said they are costly and take too much to maintain. I wish I had the gumption to stand up at that moment and counter him. After all, think about how much more expensive it is to install large pipes underground than to install some rain gardens on the surface. And think about how costly it is to have to dig up and replace those pipes when they fail. For a rain garden, you may have to replace plants as they die, add mulch from time to time, and pull some weeds, but if they are installed correctly they will take very little expensive, time intensive repairs. To me green infrastructure is a budget-friendly solution when looked at in the long-term. Just ask the city of Philadelphia. Instead of spending $8 million on grey infrastructure solutions to meet EPA requirements they spent $2 million over several years to meet the same requirements through green infrastructure. That sounds like cost savings to me!

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