Hippie Water Ripple

Hippie Infrastructure

The greening of gray and the softening of hard has come a long way in the last 40 years, but this “nature-based,” green infrastructure movement still has a ways to go.  It got a boost, though, in September in Washington DC and it’s going to get another big bump in October in Cincinnati Ohio.

In Washington, on September 19 the White House Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency convened experts from around the country to explore the barriers and solutions to using “more green and less gray” in managing municipal stormwater. One of the panelists, Elisa Speranza of CH2M Hill, pointed out the progress over the years, noting that only a few decades ago such efforts were mocked as “hippie infrastructure”. Today, communities from coast to coast are seeing the power, not only of flowers, but rain gardens, green and blue roofs, bioswales, wetlands, and sponge parks.

Proven leaders, from Howard Neukrug of Philadelphia Water Department and Jeff Eger of Water Environment Federation to Alexandra Dunn of Association of Clean Water Administrators and Katherine Baer of American Rivers, described benefits and barriers, as well as strategies and secrets to maximize success.

The U.S. Water Alliance’s Chair of its Urban Water Sustainability Council, Kevin Shafer of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, moderated a key panel on funding, financing and valuing green infrastructure. (Valuing is at the heart of getting the price right, understanding the true cost of doing and not doing, and attracting the best investors.) Participants ranged from West to East, Enrique Zaldivar of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation and Matt Millea of Onondaga County, New York, to private sector funder, Jason Scott of EKO Asset Management Partners, and environmental NGO, Jon Devine of Natural Resources Defense Council. Tables of participants, ranging from source water protectionists to landscape architects and building designers, discussed opportunities to overcome obstacles.

Top leaders from CEQ, EPA, and OMB weighed in, as well,  and listened closely to the attendees.

My own, unofficial take on the constructive dialogue:

* green infrastructure should complement, not necessarily replace, gray infrastructure,

* there are many shades of green and many justifications for green infrastructure beyond combined sewer overflows and stormwater, taking into account geography, climate, cost, and custom,

* technical, legal, and financial risk and uncertainty can stifle innovation and green infrastructure progress,

* permitting and enforcement agencies need to work together to improve integrated “one water” management and ensure innovators and early adopters get regulatory credit,

* concerted efforts are needed for research, education, and collaboration,

* even with such efforts and tactics, “culture eats strategy for lunch” so organizations and thought-leaders should focus on ushering in a cultural shift

CEQ and EPA are intent on issuing a summary of the proceedings over the next couple of months, as well as using key forums, such as the Alliance’s Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference, to keep momentum and advance the cause.

One of the most obvious opportunities is in Cincinnati, October 15-17. The U.S. Water Alliance’s Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference, like its previous summits, will convene a broad, diverse, and talented array of green city champions and water policy makers. CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley, the President’s top environmental advisor, will describe Administration-wide efforts and EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, Nancy Stoner, will give the latest scoop on the Agency’s efforts to integrate wet weather approaches and manage stormwater with greening in mind.

Cincinnati is less about keynotes, however, and more about networks and strategies. Business leaders, environmental champions, and city parks and urban forestry advocates will explore ways to integrate efforts, recover resources (from wastewater and stormwater, nutrients, biosolids, and methane), and save water, energy, and money for the communities and utilities of the future. Multi-disciplinary teams from “spotlight cities and counties” will describe their strategies for green and gray coming together as “one” for clean water progress.

Think peace, love, and flowers, along with permits, digesters, and control plans. Finding the right balance and promoting innovative partnerships will ensure green infrastructure continues to move from “hippie” to mainstream.

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