Protect our Clean Water Supplies with Green Infrastructure

Earlier this week, an entire section of the Beltway surrounding Washington, DC was shut down after a 54-inch water main broke and flooded the highway, snarling traffic and leaving 400,00 residents without water. Helicopter footage shows what looks like a river flowing over the road, turning over cars and destroying nearby businesses and homes.

On average, 700 water main breaks occur across the country every single day. In 2009, our water infrastructure was given a grade of D minus from the American Society of Civil Engineers in their annual report (President Obama mentioned this same report when calling for increased investment in infrastructure during his State of the Union speech). Examples like this recent water main break remind us about the importance of investing in our water infrastructure and the need to better protect our clean water supplies.

Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, including Prince George’s County where the water main break occurred, has been a leader in protecting our streams and rivers in Maryland and across the country, said in response to the break: “It just means we’re not doing what we’ve needed to do to improve our infrastructure.”

Our clean water infrastructure is also failing. One of the leading sources of water pollution across the country comes from polluted stormwater runoff. When rainwater falls and is unable to filter into the ground because of hard surfaces like roads and parking lots, it runs along the surface and picks up pollutants like tailpipe emissions, runs into gutters and pipes, and often flows untreated into rivers and streams.

Traditional ways of managing this polluted runoff focus on pipes and hard infrastructure to transport and store stormwater. However, many cities and towns across the country are beginning to integrate green infrastructure solutions as a cost-effective way to manage polluted runoff and take the burden off of existing infrastructure. Green infrastructure treats rainwater where it falls, by allowing it to filter into the ground. Green roofs, rain gardens, and permeable pavement are all examples of different green infrastructure technologies that can be applied in combination at any scale to take the burden off of existing water infrastructure and ensure safe and clean water supplies for communities. Green infrastructure can also cost-effectively protect drinking water supplies when communities choose to invest in protecting the land area where the water originates.

By integrating cost-effective green infrastructure approaches to work with existing water infrastructure systems, we can start to address those needs and protect safe, clean water supplies for communities across the country. The recent water main break is a stark reminder of the need to invest smartly in our water infrastructure.

Author’s Note: Thanks to our readers who pointed out the important distinction between the infrastructure that transports and treats our drinking water supplies and the infrastructure that protects clean water supplies by managing polluted stormwater runoff. Although these are separate systems, our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure as a whole is outdated and this recent news event reminds us of the importance of protecting our clean water supplies through innovative and flexible solutions like green infrastructure.