Going Green for Clean Water

The “streamscape” of my childhood memories is one of fallen log bridges, hidden treasure, and secret trails. Although my local creek was hardly pristine, it was bordered by woods and filled with fish and tadpoles, a place where my friends and I spent many hours exploring, mapping, and making our own.

These days, as I walk with my daughter in our neighborhood, the nearest “creek” is really a concrete culvert, and the nearest “pond” a holding basin for stormwater polluted by oil, metals, pesticides and other contaminants found on our urban roads, lawns and rooftops. Hardly the places to let ones imagination, much less young children, roam. Sadly, many of our urban streams and rivers have often been written off, left polluted and forsaken, placed underground as if they do not even exist.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

A growing number of places, including Chicago, Portland and Seattle, and Milwaukee are reclaiming their streams and rivers by taking a new approach to water management that can revitalize clean water and communities. For example, just a few miles from where I live, the small community of Edmonston, Maryland (population 1,500) is at the forefront of a number of cities seeking greener solutions. Edmonston is using green infrastructure stimulus funds to retrofit an existing road into a “green street” that will use trees, plants and permeable pavement to soak up rainwater and reduce local flooding problems, and pollution in the Anacostia River. Edmonston Mayor Adam Ortiz has said “our priority is to redefine the American main street and get it from top to bottom as sustainable and community-oriented as possible.”

In Milwaukee, we’re working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust (a consortium of local groups), and local businesses to shift the city’s infrastructure from gray to green to reduce sewer overflows and create a more vibrant urban area by installing green roofs and other practices. To provide incentives for these practices to be adopted more widely, we’re working to promote a green infrastructure credit to local stomwater utility fees – a ten acre business parcel can save over $15,000 a year by installing green infrastructure practices.

American Rivers is leading work nationally to make sure that ideas like this become part of everyday life:

  • In Congress, we’re supporting the Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act, which will provide funding for communities for green infrastructure and will provide additional technical assistance to states and communities;
  • Our work to secure dedicated funding as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for green infrastructure and water efficiency has shifted federal funding to more sustainable approaches – states nationwide used more than the 20% required by law and demand for these green funds was well above available funds  As a result, this dedicated funding has been continued (more on this later…) and has already resulted in many good projects including the green street described above.
  • We’re advocating for strong standards as part of EPA’s process to develop requirements for better management of polluted stormwater runoff from developed areas, building on our experience creating similar standards for federal buildings.

Achieving a vision of greener and more vibrant communities and healthy rivers will require moving green infrastructure from an “innovative” practice to a mainstream practice, and considering ways to create broad value for communities as part of reinvesting in our built and natural infrastructure to achieve clean and reliable water. This will require continued work at the local level as well as aligning federal funding and clean water regulations to prioritize these approaches.

At my daughter’s kindergarten, the class recently planted a raingarden – something that I certainly never did at that age. I’ll take this as a sign that perhaps this greener vision is within reach. Given time, hopefully all our kids will have access to creeks that are clean, safe, and inspiring – something that is truly worth working for.