Accelerating Urban Innovation: Emerging Opportunities in Stormwater Infrastructure

Posted by Carmen Rojas on

With the combination of weather and population changes and growing pressure to meet Clean Water Act requirements, American cities face the challenge of overhauling their existing stormwater infrastructure at a time when municipalities are under great financial strain. While this challenge is significant, there is also an incredible opportunity to understand how we can creatively finance projects and leverage much needed infrastructure improvement to increase economic opportunity for low-income people.

Changes in climate patterns are having a direct impact on cities’ capacity to handle stormwater runoff. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Rocky Mountain Climate Organization recently released a study finding that, in the Midwest alone, extreme rainstorms have doubled in the last 50 years. The combination of these heavy rains with population growth in cities wears on cities’ existing gray stormwater infrastructure of tunnels and sewage systems. The end result is a greater incidence of stormwater system flooding.

When systems flood, stormwater runoff - which collects dirt, oil, trash, and other pollutants as it washes over buildings, sidewalks, and streets - gets dumped into nearby rivers, lakes, and oceans. In fact, the US National Research Council identified urban stormwater runoff as a leading source of water quality problems (PDF here).

If cities do not address the issue of stormwater runoff, increased water pollution won’t be the only consequence. Municipal budgets will also be stretched as cities are forced to remediate the effects and threats of lawsuits for violations of the Clean Water Act. These are not isolated cases either. An estimated 800 municipalities have Clean Water Act obligations to reduce raw sewage overflows from combined sewer systems. Yet in spite of pressure from the EPA and the increased demand for stormwater management capacity, over 70% of water utilities in the United States either lack or barely have sufficient funding to maintain their current graying infrastructure, let alone develop new management tactics.

The resultant pressure has created a holding environment for city innovation. In places like Philadelphia, cities are developing programs to create solutions that transform the way infrastructure is paid for, while transitioning away from traditional gray to less expensive green stormwater infrastructure.

Green stormwater infrastructure, newer more sustainable infrastructure, manages stormwater on site with mechanisms that mimic natural hydrologic functions, such as permeable pavements, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings, and rain barrels. Gray stormwater management focuses on the collection of runoff. Green stormwater infrastructure, on the contrary, focuses not on increasing system capacity, but on reducing demand on the system.

Investments in green stormwater infrastructure have a significant potential to impact low-income people and communities in cities. The emerging sector will require a new workforce trained and capable of implementing the new solutions. However, more research is needed to better understand this potential impact.

As more cities explore green infrastructure and as momentum builds around related financing models, Living Cities sees a window of opportunity to influence the emerging approaches at this early stage to include an equity lens. To accomplish this, we will be working to (i) connect cities across the country that are beginning to green their stormwater infrastructure, (ii) identify long-term financing products and approaches for these projects, (iii) establish roles for impact investors and philanthropy in financing innovative approaches, and (iv) understand the career pathways and lifecycles of employment created by these projects.

Specifically, Living Cities will partner with NatLab to carry out these objectives. NatLab, a collaborative effort among Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and EKO Asset Management Partners, is currently conducting research in Philadelphia to develop a blueprint for the city to meet its green stormwater infrastructure needs and for private investors to realize returns on green stormwater infrastructure investments. Living Cities will share the learnings from this pilot project in Philadelphia with other cities and municipalities through a convening in the fall. Then, we will select two additional cities through a competitive process to replicate this research. Living Cities will also be working with ELP Advisors to better understand the specific job creation implications and potential career pathways for low-income people.