Columnist: Water Plan for the Century: Philadelphia's Breakthrough


WASHINGTON -- Could it be serious -- a major American city makes water conservation the linchpin of its 21st-century planning, the ticket to a future that's both "green" and economically vibrant? 

Answer: yes. And that grand old city is Philadelphia. A quarter-century past a wave of crippling industrial losses, Philadelphia is consciously making water conservation a centerpiece of its economic and environmental strategy -- its goal to be the country's "greenest" city. 

Elements of the plan, first conceived in the city's Office of Watersheds, sound radically less ambitious. The focus is on stopping storm water from flooding drainage systems and sending untreated sewage and debris flowing into local rivers and streams. (Yearly, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated urban runoff flow into the nation's surface waters.) 

To stem its discharges, Philadelphia is intent on filtering out, block by block, the fast, storm-induced runoff of pollutants -- litter, oil, antifreeze, pesticides, bacteria from pet waste -- that accumulate on concrete and asphalt surfaces, then wash into and pollute streams and rivers. 

All this matters in dollars. Federal Clean Water Act rules could have obligated Philadelphia to spend as much as $10 billion for a system of massive tanks and tunnels to hold overflows -- the "big engineering" solution many cities are following. By contrast, the cost of Philadelphia's new water-conserving, storm-mitigating green infrastructure may be as little as $2 billion. 

But the benefit may go beyond budget savings, argues Howard Neukrug. He's the civil servant who started espousing the new conservation strategy in Philadelphia's Office of Watersheds 14 years ago. Now promoted to water commissioner by Mayor Michael Nutter, Neukrug explains why a smart and conserving water policy can make a crucial difference for his city's future. 

First, it's a route to environmental and social justice. Poor areas have more than their share, he argues, of streams laden with pollutants, plus buried or neglected waterways that are hard to reach and not very attractive when one does. 

So a city assist to "green" and improve those areas, making them accessible, safe and natural, with buried streams revived and more community open space created, is key, Neukrug insists, not just to the city's environmental sustainability, but to real equity issues: improved safety and physical attractiveness. Such steps, he argues, don't just create more greenery, save energy and cool the region in an era of global climate change. He contends they will also enable Philadelphia to draw a larger share of residents able to pay their bills -- undergirding the city's economic and environmental sustainability. 

Given those goals, Philadelphia has a panoply of strategies to reduce water runoff and improve the landscape. There's "rainwater harvesting" -- barrels homeowners can attach to water downspouts and use later for garden watering. Companion strategies include pushing urban gardening, advocating green roofs and creating nature-friendly master plans for former industrial riverfronts. 

Streets are being rebuilt so that storm water typically gets diverted into gravel beds under the rights-of-way and sidewalks, the old inlets and sewer connections preserved to accommodate just the very heaviest downpours. 
A start's been made to install porous street surfaces that absorb water directly; Nutter showed up at one location, remarking later: "I poured a gallon of water on the street and it just disappeared." 

Some 15 parks have been made over with new trees or underground basins to absorb runoff; in alliance with the Trust for Public Land, efforts have begun to transform 500 acres of public land into green play spaces by 2015. Separately, the public schools are being engaged to redeem ugly asphalt-paved schoolyards with greenery -- no small matter, notes Neukrug, because removing just 2.5 acres of asphalt and concrete saves 3 million gallons of storm water runoff a year. 

Some businesses have objected to Philadelphia's plan since they're now being charged for the runoff costs of their paved areas, not just the amounts of fresh water they consume. 

But the city's "Green City, Clean Waters" initiative received approval from Pennsylvania regulators last June, and from the federal Environmental Protection Agency this April. Both agencies were initially suspicious of Philadelphia's unconventional approach to retrofit nearly 10,000 acres for on-site management rather than a "big pipe" solution. 
And in a major report last fall, the Natural Resources Defense Council rated Philadelphia's green infrastructure solution for storm water the United States' most comprehensive. (Runners-up included Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, New York and Portland, Ore.) 

Next month, Nutter becomes president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors -- unquestionably championing his Greenworks program in the process. 

Yet as central as mayoral leadership is, it's heartening to note that a once-obscure city bureaucrat crafted an initiative likely to serve one of America's great historical cities well through this century. 

Neal Peirce's email address is

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group 

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.