Yauger Park WA

Water Parknerships

Summer time and splash parks go together like baseball and cracker jack, and so should efforts to sustain urban watersheds and parks, regardless of the season.

City parks and special purpose districts are important to the broader green infrastructure movement, which U.S. Water Alliance continues to embrace. We’re not alone. Some NGOs, such as The Conservation Fund, Low Impact Development Center, American Rivers, and Smart Growth America, have been working and producing in the field of green for some time.

One of our newest partners, the City Parks Alliance, focuses on the many benefits of urban “water parks”–even if they don’t have the splash fountains and other watery features requiring swim suits. Storm ponds, water meadows, tree canopies, and the like can all contribute towards a triple-bottom line of environmental, economic and social benefits, if properly designed, funded, and maintained. City Parks Alliance’s “Greater and Greener” conference in New York City July 15-17 will offer a confluence of opportunities and insights on initiatives, ranging from the Obama Administration’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to more locally-based and private-sector supported efforts around the country.

Here are three of my favorite policy opportunities for cleaner and healthier watersheds, all of which involve innovative urban parknerships:

1. Green Infrastructure Funding

It’s not easy getting green (i.e. money) for parks but a growing number of projects point to some traditional and not-so-traditional federal and state funds to supplement the core base of support:  local fees, taxes, and gifts.  American Rivers’ reports, such as its 2010 “Putting Green to Work,” detail the demand for and array of green infrastructure projects receiving funds from the $1.2 billion “Green Project Reserve” (GPR) in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the prospects for the additional $700 million provided in FY 2010 appropriations.

An increasing number of projects use a portion of the Clean Water Act state revolving loan funds and infrastructure grants, as well as nonpoint source management monies for parks and districts. For example, Yauger Park in Olympia, Washington, is using $3.67 million of GPR funds to increase stormwater storage, improve treatment, and reduce erosion through wetlands, retention ponds, rain gardens, swales, and porous pavement.

Brooklyn New York’s heavily-polluted Gowanus Canal is getting attention too. The community board is planning a “sponge park” along the Superfund site canal to catch and clean stormwater and add recreational space. The New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission provided a grant to jump start the project.

Fortunately, declining EPA funds aren’t the only source of federal seed money.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund has potential to advance the green water parks agenda too, particularly if dollars can be used to spur innovation and public private partnerships, as contemplated by the Administration’s proposed challenge grants. There’s also the potential, albeit limited, to tap into U.S. Highway program funds, such as Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), for stormwater projects.

2. Stormwater Regulatory Tools

Good permitting and enforcement policies involve more than just numbers and hammers. EPA has recognized this and is moving towards more incentives for green infrastructure projects, including those on park land. This is also where the classic battle plays out between regulatory flexibility and enforcement certainty. Some utilities claim they want to substitute more green for gray, such as storm parks for tunnels, but don’t get respect or regulatory credit for doing so.  An April 2011 policy memo from EPA Assistant Administrator for Enforcement Cynthia Giles and Acting Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner seeks to promote the coordination of permitting and enforcement efforts. More progress is needed.

In addition, Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) are a largely untapped resource for good works in the converging fields of water and parks.  One example comes to mind:  Cathedral Park, Portland Oregon. After years of combined sewer overflows into the Willamette River and resulting permit violations, the City has contributed $565,086 to a SEP that “greens” a parking lot area to capture and clean runoff before entering the river.

Is it time to revisit EPA’s 1998 policy on  SEPs? From my perspective, the policy statement has endured the years and served the public well but it’s good to review as environmental management paradigms shift. Are there barriers to steering more projects toward urban parks and watersheds? It’s important for a basic nexus still to remain between the violation and the benefits from the SEP.

3. Water Recycling

If water is just as valuable as money when it comes to parks, then reclaimed wastewater has the potential to be liquid gold. Alexandria Renew Enterprises, formerly known as Alexandria Sanitation Authority, is living up to the promise of its new name: highly treated reclamation water, known as “Blurenew” is beneficially reused on site and in the neighborhood.

Their General Manager, Karen Pallansch, gave me a tour of their work and a peek at their future.  In 2011, they reused over 1.3 billion gallons of treated effluent for plant maintenance and cleaning – this saves the authority almost $3 million in purchased water expenses. As a local soccer fan, I’m even more encouraged by their plans to send their treated wastewater effluent next door to help irrigate and support a future municipal soccer field.  It’s a great way to partner with the community and reduce the water bill for the city’s parks and recreation managers.

Californians have been thinking big for years when it comes to water and parks.  San Francisco Public Utility Commission, a winner of the 2012 U.S. Water Prize, is supporting an historic move to replace fresh water from Hetch Hetchy reservoir and the Tuolumne River with reclaimed wastewater for irrigating and maintaining Golden Gate Park. San Francisco may be behind other cities in the Bay area with respect to recycled water development but they’re making steady progress now. The Westside Recycled Water Project would include membrane filtration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection as well as facilities and pipelines to store and deliver water (as much as 4.5 million gallons per day during peak summer demand) throughout the park and a local golf course.

The Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility (aka SMURRF) is a leader in reclaiming and reusing “urban slobber” to save the Bay from pollution, use water efficiently, and educate the public. SMURFF, a joint effort by Santa Monica and Los Angeles, was built over a decade ago (with $12M in funds from local and state and federal ISTEA sources).  The highly-treated dry weather runoff, primarily from city streets and construction sites, is used for irrigating city parks and medians and serving as non-potable flush water for some public facilities, including a nearby Water Garden.

Here’s to a future of more parks enfused with reused water. Clean recycled water can help meet community park needs and save freshwater supplies for other high priorities, increasing water security and economic stability in water-stressed regions along the way.

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