Green Reserve — Water Infrastructure in the Stimulus at One Year

At the groundbreaking of a “green street” project in Edmonston, Maryland, funded by the stimulus, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said:

“Environmental protection, if done right, is about protecting a community. You should never have to choose between an economy that’s vibrant and green and an environment that’s vibrant and green.”

That’s exactly why the “green reserve” portion of water infrastructure in the stimulus – $1.2 billion for communities across the country to spend on green infrastructure, water and energy efficiency and environmental innovation – is exactly the kind of approach we need to take to restoring our clean water and our communities.

Green infrastructure, including installing green roofs, rain gardens, rain barrels and protecting wetlands is a smart investment. Philadelphia found that this green approach to reduce flooding, sewer overflows and polluted stormwater runoff also provides multiple benefits such improved air quality, property values and recreational opportunities compared to a traditional “deep tunnel” approach. Already being used successfully in places such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Seattle and many others, the green reserve has extended these green infrastructure projects into many more communities.

In Washington, the green reserve is funding stormwater infiltration in Olympia and a green project in Spokane, while New York created a new green innovation grants program that is funding 49 projects statewide including use of green infrastructure to reduce combined sewer overflows to the Mohawk River in Utica. In Pennsylvania, Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forests received $1.2 million to plant trees and install permeable pavers to reduce polluted stormwater runoff that trigger combined sewer overflows. Maryland estimates that six of the state’s green infrastructure projects will create 80 jobs using natural techniques that filter pollutants, create habitat and are a key state climate adaptation strategy.

Water efficiency saves water and energy, and the Alliance for Water Efficiency found that a $10 billion investment in water efficiency projects would create 150,000-222,000 jobs and save 6.5-10 trillion gallons of water. While water efficiency should be the backbone of any drinking water supply strategy and these projects have long been eligible for federal infrastructure dollars, few communities have made use of them. Now, communities in Georgia and Maryland are using stimulus money to retrofit old, wasteful fixtures with high efficiency models and many other communities are installing water meters for the first time to reduce water use.

Consistent with initial work done by American Rivers and the Alliance for Water Efficiency showing that there was a ready-to-go list of over $2 billion for these sorts of projects, the demand for the green reserve appears to well outstrip the availability of funds. In our initial analysis of 16 states (based on data through the end of January), American Rivers found that demand for green reserve projects from the clean water state revolving fund exceeded availability by an average of at least 1.5 times and demand for the drinking water state revolving fund exceeded availability by an average of at least 1.2 times. This is a great sign and good news, because the dedicated funding for green water projects has been continued into FY10 with almost $700 million available nationwide.

No doubt there are improvements needed – EPA must issue better guidance for the states and some states need project ranking criteria to better evaluate green reserve projects. But given the quick timeline presented by the stimulus, this first year was an excellent first step towards more integrated and sustainable water infrastructure that can provide multiple benefits to communities including increasing our resilience to climate change.

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Also, calculators can be really useful. Our colleagues at the Center for Neighborhood Technology created this one for green infrastructure and stormwater.