Cities Like Washington DC Are Moving Ahead With Green Infrastructure, But EPA's Progress Is Stalled - Tell The Agency To Act Now!

Today NRDC released an update to its 2011 report Rooftops to Rivers II, which showed how cities of all sizes were employing green infrastructure to solve their stormwater pollution problems and revitalize their communities.  Today’s update reveals that in just the past two years, the cities we profiled have made significant progress in implementing their green infrastructure programs.  That includes our nation’s capital, Washington, DC, whose forward-thinking initiatives are detailed a little later in this post. 

But this progress at the municipal level provides a stark contrast to the federal government’s failure to take action on improved clean water safeguards that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been talking about proposing for years.  Today, in addition to spreading the word about the achievements of our Rooftops to Rivers “Emerald Cities,” NRDC is joining together with citizens and organizations across the country to demand that EPA issue new standards that will allow everyone in America to enjoy the benefits of green infrastructure and clean water.

EPA has a once-in-a-generation opportunity right now to modernize how we manage stormwater runoff.  Stormwater – the dirty water that rolls off hard surfaces like roads and parking lots and into nearby water bodies every time it rains – is one of the fastest growing sources of water pollution and is already the largest known cause of beach closing and advisory days

In the past, we haven’t done a great job of managing this pollution.  We’ve spent decades paving over our natural landscapes and conveying runoff through pipes directly into local water bodies with no treatment – carrying contaminants and trash with it.  Just look where that’s gotten us. 

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Fortunately, we know better now.  Scientific advancements in recent years have shown that the best way of minimizing the impacts of development and reducing polluted stormwater is to mimic Mother Nature.  Instead of letting all that dirty rainwater run off of our roofs and highways, we should be letting it do what it does naturally: soak into the ground or be taken up by plants.  The technologies that help us do this, like green roofs, rain gardens, and permeable pavement, are collectively known as green infrastructure.

The best thing about green infrastructure is that, unlike traditional “gray” infrastructure approaches to stormwater management, it provides a range of other benefits to communities.  Planting more trees and other vegetation in the built environment gives us cleaner air, wildlife habitat, more green maintenance jobs, higher property values, less crime, better health, and more.  What’s more, EPA recently released a series of economic case studies showing that green infrastructure can cost less for municipalities than traditional hard infrastructure.

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For the past couple of years, EPA has been promising to update the national set of regulations that govern stormwater management to require newly developed and redeveloped sites to reduce the amount of polluted runoff they generate.  Not only would modernizing our stormwater standards result in cleaner water, it would also increase the amount of green infrastructure that’s deployed in urban and suburban neighborhoods, making communities healthier and more vibrant.

Unfortunately, EPA has delayed issuing these new standards time and time again.  The agency first promised to propose them back in 2009.  But after watching EPA miss its self-imposed proposal deadlines six times, we’ve had enough delay.  The time for action is now.  If you agree, please send a letter to EPA staff or a tweet to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to show your support for progress on these critical regulatory updates.

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Green infrastructure outside the headquarters of the District Department of the Environment - Washington, DC

Even though the EPA’s progress is stalled, that’s not the case for a number of cities around the country – which we call “Emerald Cities” – that are showing how practical and beneficial green infrastructure can be.  Fittingly, one of our leading Emerald Cities is our nation’s capital, Washington, DC.  Two years ago, DC was already ahead of the curve, and our new Rooftops to Rivers update shows that the District has taken even more steps to increase its green infrastructure commitments.

  • The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) recently started the process of developing formal plans for meeting water quality standards in the District.  This critical planning process will likely depend upon and encourage the use of green infrastructure to reduce stormwater pollution.
  • This summer, DDOE finalized new stormwater regulations for new development and redevelopment in the District.  Starting next year, developments over a certain size will have to retain the stormwater volume from a 1.2-inch storm on site.  The retention standard must be met using practices that infiltrate, evapotranspirate, and/or reuse stormwater, including green infrastructure.  The regulations include a first-of-its-kind trading program that allows regulated properties to purchase retention “credits” from properties that are retrofitted with excess retention capacity.  This trading program is expected to result in the installation of new green infrastructure practices more broadly throughout the District.  (The program does contain some loopholes that threaten its effectiveness, like a lack of restrictions on where or when credits can be used, so we’ll be monitoring its implementation closely.)
  • DDOE also recently finalized a discount program, RiverSmart Rewards, for its stormwater fee that allows residents to receive a discount of up to 55 percent when they manage stormwater using green infrastructure.
  • In December 2012, DC Water (the District’s water and sewer utility) entered a partnership agreement with the EPA and the District government, committing to use more green infrastructure techniques in its wet-weather pollution controls.  The partnership agreement identifies a process by which DC Water will propose a modification to its current sewer overflow remediation plan that allows it time to implement a green infrastructure demonstration project.  If the demonstration project is successful, DC Water intends to seek approval for a modified plan that substitutes green techniques for some of the underground storage tunnels the current plan requires.  (The downside of this initiative, unfortunately, is that the extended time frame associated with the pilot project could lead to delays of up to eight years in reducing sewage overflows in local waters.)

As these programs show, Washington, DC is investing in green infrastructure as a cost-effective approach to reducing pollution and improving quality of life.  It’s time for EPA to step up as well and improve federal stormwater standards, making green infrastructure a common amenity in neighborhoods nationwide.  After all, people everywhere deserve greener cities and cleaner waters.