What state can afford to ignore the benefits of green infrastructure?

Budget trimming in states across the nation have cut deeply into environmental agencies and the programs they manage. A survey of 24 states by the Environmental Council of States reports an average budget reduction to environmental agencies of $12 million this year. In addition, states have lost greater than 5% since 2004 from federal grants to support U.S. Environmental Protection Agency programs.

Former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), David Hess, describes “a silent train wreck” from budget reductions that “cut the capacity and the ability of environmental agencies to do their jobs.” The Pennsylvania DEP is currently operating at 1994 funding levels. Other state resource agencies are also experiencing budget and program cuts. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) has less and less federal resources to distribute to increasingly needy municipalities for water quality and infrastructure projects.

The train wreck is fast approaching for more and more municipalities unless smarter clean water investments are made quickly. Funding clean water must emphasize increased efficiency of existing traditional hard or gray infrastructure and an investment shift toward cost effective green infrastructure.   

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia continues to lead the way implementing green infrastructure solutions to address its clean water needs and exploring innovative funding strategies. In 2009, PENNVEST made its first green infrastructure loan—to Philadelphia for projects that deliver the city multiple benefits.

Today, PENNVEST is also directing smart investments toward smaller cities. Notably this includes Lancaster in the Chesapeake Bay’s Susquehanna River watershed. Over the last decade, Lancaster has invested nearly $20 million upgrading its gray infrastructure system yet the city still dumps about one billion gallons of waste through combined sewage overflows into the Conestoga River annually. To avoid spending more than $250 million to treat these problems, Lancaster has begun shifting its investments toward the City of Lancaster Green Infrastructure Plan, released April 2011.

Lancaster is smart to recognize the multiple benefits of green infrastructure implementation. Under the Plan, the city expects to provide more livable, sustainable neighborhoods while reducing combined sewer overflows and nutrients polluting the Bay. Even smarter—the city will maximize green infrastructure investments on projects that address multiple water quality problems: sewer overflows, stormwater flooding and pollutant levels requiring clean-up. Smarter yet—investments will be coupled with other city projects such as building or road improvements. Director of Public Works, Charlotte Katzenmoyer puts it this way: “That’s when you get the best return on your investment, when you integrate it into another project.”

There are hundreds of municipalities in Pennsylvania facing the same difficulty ensuring a clean water future for their communities. With dwindling budgets, the state’s agencies must first promote the models established by Philadelphia and Lancaster and secondly, direct investments toward municipal plans for green infrastructure—a train wreck must be avoided.