Protecting Clean Water in Connecticut with Green Infrastructure

Thumbnail image for CSO -- Newtown Creek Brooklyn from Riverkeeper.jpg

Here’s the thing – New England is pretty much the best place on Earth.  Oh sure, there are more beautiful places and there are places with less aggressive drivers and less fun-to-imitate accents, but to me New England is home (even though I haven’t actually lived there for almost two decades), and I love to talk about the region and brag about it when good things happen there.  Like the 2004 Red Sox.  So, please indulge a Massachusetts boy’s parochialism.

Today, our friends at Save the Sound, a part of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, are releasing a report they commissioned to evaluate the feasibility of addressing a critical water pollution source by implementing green infrastructure -- design strategies that mimic natural hydrology and capture rain where it falls. 

In Connecticut, several cities have “combined” sewer systems, meaning that sewage flushed from homes and businesses is carried by the same pipes that receive runoff when it rains.  These systems – of which there are over 700 nationwide -- were originally constructed many decades ago, and are designed to allow the mix of raw sewage and runoff to overflow into our rivers when we have a significant enough rainfall. 

Photo: Combined sewer overflow, Newtown Creek, Brooklyn. Courtesy of Riverkeeper

The report discusses how green infrastructure techniques can prevent stormwater from reaching the combined sewer system and reduce pollution from overflows in Bridgeport and New Haven.  NRDC served as a consultant and steering committee member, and a reviewer of the report.  It’s a serious effort, so kudos to the folks at Save the Sound and the various people they worked with, from non-profit groups, to state agencies, municipalities, and city water pollution control authorities.  I particularly like how the analysis pencils out specific green infrastructure installations, to give readers a sense of how the techniques can be weaved into the urban and suburban landscape, and how they will function.  Pictured here is an example from the report of how a New Haven school parking lot could be sustainably re-engineered to keep runoff from loading into the combined sewer.

Parking lot bioretention from CT report.bmp

The other reason this analysis deserves to be highlighted is that it shows how green infrastructure solutions are gaining mainstream momentum.  The folks in Connecticut are taking steps to join a nationwide movement towards the use of green infrastructure to address sewer overflows and other stormwater-related pollution problems.  This movement is spotlighted by “Rooftops to Rivers II,” NRDC's recent report, which provides detailed case studies analyzing how 14 cities of varying size and geography are using these methods, and which highlights how using green infrastructure often saves money compared to traditional “gray” approaches and how the green approaches deliver significant community benefits. 

The pilot program envisioned by the report could be the next critical step toward driving New Haven and Bridgeport to incorporate green infrastructure into their long term combined sewer overflow control plans required under the Clean Water Act. They’ll join the likes of green infrastracture champions such as New York and Philadelphia, as well as smaller cities like Cleveland and Kansas City.  And that effort could provide the roadmap for making Connecticut a leader in New England on green infrastructure solutions. 

Likewise, the report recognizes that a critical component of the green infrastructure movement is understanding how stormwater fees and related programs can incentivize private parties to implement and invest in green infrastructure.  NRDC recently addressed this issue in a groundbreaking analysis of innovative financing approaches for green infrastructure retrofits.  The report uses Philadelphia as a test case to explore ways in which innovative financing mechanisms, currently being used for energy efficiency retrofits, can be adapted for stormwater management.

As New Haven and Bridgeport step forward, we have some ideas for them.  For the “Rooftops to Rivers” report, NRDC created the “Emerald City Scale,” a guideline for assessing communities’ commitment to green infrastructure.  The six-point scale identifies core criteria every city can undertake to maximize their green infrastructure investment, including: a long term green infrastructure plan for the city, a requirement to retain a defined amount of runoff from development projects, a requirement to reduce existing impervious surfaces using green infrastructure, incentives for private-party installation of green infrastructure, guidance or other assistance in deploying green infrastructure, and a dedicated funding source to help ensure that green infrastructure projects keep going.  We’ve also created a function on our website that allows municipalities to submit information about local green initiatives.  We hope that, following the direction that Save the Sound and other Connecticut leaders have provided, Bridgeport and New Haven will soon add their names to the growing list of cities aggressively and widely adopting green infrastructure.  

So, here’s to my New England friends – thanks for protecting the wahtah with green infrahstructah.