The District of Columbia has outlined the steps it will take to become the healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the United States.
The Sustainable DC Plan, released this week by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) and Office of Planning (OE), sets forth more than 100 actions that are meant to improve the District’s energy consumption, waste generation, stormwater management and access to open spaces, clean water and fresh, local food—all in just two decades.
At an event that celebrated the release of the plan, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray called Washington, D.C., a “model” of sustainability for cities across the nation and around the world.
“Things are changing. Times are changing. And we are changing,” Gray said.
In recent years, the District has become a leader in planting trees, installing green roofs, boosting public transportation and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Sustainable DC Plan will build on these actions with ambitious goals to clean up local land, water and the Chesapeake Bay. The District will ensure, for instance, that all residents live within a 10-minute walk of parks or natural spaces; that 40 percent of the city is covered with a healthy tree canopy; and that all of the District’s waterways—including the long-polluted Anacostia River—are made fishable and swimmable by 2032.
Read more about the Sustainable DC Plan.
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to express gratitude for the good in life. We have much to be thankful for—and so does the Chesapeake Bay! Here is a look at six moments from the past year that signaled good news for the watershed.
6. A sustainable blue crab population. The most recent report on the Bay’s blue crab stock reveals a population that has reached sustainable levels and is not overfished. Winter estimates place the adult female blue crab population at 97 million, based on a dredge survey taken at almost 1,500 sites throughout the Bay. The survey also measured more juveniles than have been counted in the past two decades. A stable blue crab population means a more stable Bay economy, with watermen employed, restaurants stocked and recreational crabbers (and crab-eaters!) happy.
Image courtesy Erickson Smith/Flickr
5. Additional American eels. American eel numbers are up in the headwater streams of Shenandoah National Park, following the removal of a large dam that once blocked eels from moving upstream. Other anadromous swimmers like shad, herring and striped bass—which must migrate from the ocean into rivers to spawn—are also using this reopened habitat. Our rivers are thankful to see the return of these important residents.
4. A huge boost in oyster restoration. This year, restoration partners in Maryland put more than 600 million oyster spat into the Chesapeake Bay in the largest targeted restoration effort the watershed has ever seen. While some of the oyster larvae went into the Upper Bay, most went into Harris Creek, a tributary of the Choptank River that was declared an oyster sanctuary in 2010. While habitat loss, disease and historic overfishing have contributed to a dramatic decline in native oyster populations, planting “spat on shell” onto harvest-safe sanctuaries is one way to bring the water-filtering bivalves back.
3. A lot of living shorelines. When shorelines wash away, fish, crabs and other wildlife lose valuable habitat, and coastal landowners lose their lawns. To curb shoreline erosion, coastal property owners are turning toward living shorelines, which replace hardened bulkhead and riprap with grasses and trees. This summer, the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s Living Shorelines program awarded $800,000 to 16 homeowner associations, non-profit organizations and towns to install more than 6,800 feet of living shoreline and wetland habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
2. Greater green infrastructure. With the implementation of green infrastructure, cities can use the natural environment to better manage stormwater runoff. Green roofs, rain gardens and pervious pavement, for instance, can absorb stormwater runoff before it flows into local rivers and streams. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) awarded $4 million to local governments for green infrastructure projects. But the environment is not the only one who will be thankful; green infrastructure can revitalize communities and produce cost benefits that can exceed those of traditional stormwater management methods. We are grateful that more towns will be greener in both color and concept!
1. Long-term improvements in Bay health. A number of Bay monitoring sites have shown long-term improvements in nutrient and sediment levels. According to an August report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), one-third of monitoring sites have shown improvement in sediment concentrations since 1985, two-thirds have shown improvement in nitrogen concentrations and almost all have shown improvement in phosphorous concentrations. These improvements in long-term trends indicate pollution-reduction efforts—from upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to cuts in fertilizer use on farms and suburban lawns—are working.
The mention of Lancaster, Pennsylvania evokes images of cows trampling through streams, laundry hanging on the line, whoopie pies, and an agricultural way of life that has been forgotten in most places of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. While tourists flock to the southeastern Pennsylvania county popularly known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Country," the City of Lancaster may soon hold its own claim to fame as a green urban center.
Vegetation overflows from rooftops, follows sidewalks, and decorates parking lots that were once neighborhood eyesores: this is how city officials envision Lancaster twenty-five years from now.
These greening projects, the first of which began construction this year, not only give red brick-clad Lancaster a sharp, aesthetically pleasing color contrast; they are part of the city’s twenty-five year plan to prevent its 750 million gallons of annual stormwater runoff from entering the Conestoga River, an impaired Susquehanna River tributary.
While stormwater runoff may appear to be “just rainwater,” as it moves through parking lots, lawns, and roadways, it picks up pollutants. These pollutants and the water that carries them are often not treated or filtered before being conveyed into local tributaries.
But in Lancaster, tree trenches along parking lots absorb stormwater; rain gardens are filled with plants that are able to absorb a large amount of water at a time. Such vegetation allows the stormwater to seep slowly into the ground before running off onto roadways, parking lots, and other “impervious” surfaces. These “hard” surfaces make it easy for water to pick up automobile chemicals, pet waste, litter, and other pollutants on its way into local storm drains and tributaries.
In places where vegetation cannot thrive, like parking lots and alleyways, concrete and asphalt are replaced by permeable pavement. This type of pavement allows water to pass through into the ground, instead of acting as a seal and forcing water to form puddles or run off into the storm drains.
"The ground will naturally absorb the sediments, the phosphorus, and the nitrogen," explains Charlotte Katzenmoyer, Director of Public Works for the City of Lancaster. "The bacteria in the soil will use this for their feeding purposes. You're actually using the ground to clean that stormwater."
Using what is already there is saving Lancaster money – lots of money. With enough vegetation and permeable pavement, Lancaster will be able to keep its stormwater on site and use the natural environment to clean it. And it will do so for less than half the amount of money it would take to manage stormwater with man-made systems.
Going green means cutting costs
In the late 1990s, Lancaster developed a plan to prevent untreated stormwater from overflowing into the Conestoga: build a 300 million dollar underground storage tank, and spend $750,000 each year to treat the storm flow passing through the tank. (This method of stormwater control, known as “grey infrastructure,” relies on man-made technologies to capture, filter, and convey stormwater.)
It would work, but it would be expensive.
"When the Environmental Protection Agency started coming to us, and asking us when we were going to build these storage tanks, that's when we took another look,” says Katzenmoyer. “We asked if we could more cost effectively achieve the same goals with green infrastructure."
"Green infrastructure" keeps stormwater onsite using natural processes and nature-inspired technologies. Plants in rain gardens and tree trenches absorb stormwater quickly in heavy rain events, preventing it from running off into storm drains. Permeable pavement, although not natural, imitates this characteristic, and allows water to infiltrate into the ground.
Lancaster's new, green infrastructure plan cut their costs dramatically; the city is able to manage its 750 million gallons of storm water per year for less than 140 million dollars total. This was less than half the amount of money required just to build the underground storage tank.
Lancaster's green infrastructure plan was born out of the Environmental Protection Agency's request that all municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed detail how they plan to reduce pollution in their local Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
"As much as we are motivated to restore the natural environment and do the right thing, ultimately, this is something that the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, is telling us we need to address," explains Fritz Schroeder, Director of the Lancaster-based non-profit Live Green, which has been working with the City of Lancaster to educate the community on clean water issues.
"The city, with great vision and foresight, I believe, is choosing to do it in a very creative fashion, utilizing green infrastructure instead of a traditional grey infrastructure piping system,” says Schroeder. “This will help set our community apart and serve as a platform for creating a wonderful place for us to call home for years to come."
Green: the new grey?
While this stormwater management technique imitates the way the natural world manages stormwater, it is a revolutionary concept for city planners.
Most cities were built to get stormwater off site as quickly as possible, hence the storm drains that convey water into local tributaries. These stormwater systems flood in severe rain events, carrying pollutants such as automobile exhaust, bacteria from pet waste, and lawn fertilizer, directly into our rivers at high speeds. When water moves at high speeds, it often takes dirt from stream banks with it. This sediment pollution clouds the water and makes it difficult for bay grasses and other life to flourish.
Following the water: roofs, alleys, and lots
No matter which way the stormwater flows through Lancaster’s public parking lots, it will be absorbed by a garden, tree, or permeable pavement.
“The idea is that as all the stormwater comes from uphill, moving through the parking lot, one technology or another will capture the water, and then infiltrate it back into the natural environment,” explains Schroeder.
While tree trenches and rain gardens capture stormwater, shaded parking lots also reduce the heat island effect, the concept that large, developed areas heat up quickly and increase the temperature of surrounding, undeveloped areas. A reduced heat island effect reduces air conditioning costs in the summer and improves air quality.
A green roof, constructed on Graff Family Funeral Home as a project of Lancaster County Planning Commission, reduces the heat island effect on the formerly black rubber roof and has cut the building's air conditioning costs.
"Traditionally on a black rubber roof like this, you will have temperatures that are 60 to 70 degrees hotter in the summer," explains Schroeder.
The plants also absorb stormwater falling on the roof, reducing the amount that flows into the city's combined sewer system.
"As (the sedums) continue to fill in and cover all the bare spots of this roof, the roots will spread and serve as a sponge that takes up this water," says Schroeder. "We believe we're capturing and retaining between 50 and 70 percent of the rain flow that falls on the roof."
Other technologies include colorfully painted rain barrels that capture rain coming off of roofs, as well as disconnected downspouts that direct stormwater into rain gardens.
With a green infrastructure approach, all of these nature-inspired technologies work together to absorb stormwater, preventing it, and the pollutants it carries, from entering local tributaries.
Greening your yard
While Lancaster is completing 100 stormwater management projects in 2012, all are on city-owned properties. In order for stormwater flows to be reduced, private property owners also need to consider installing rain gardens and rain barrels.
The City of Lancaster works with Live Green, a non-profit whose “Save It” campaign encourages residents to install rain gardens, disconnect their downspouts, and conserve water in their homes.
“We’re reaching out to homeowners; we're meeting with them and touring their property,” explains Schroeder. “We're making suggestions on how they could capture more stormwater using rain barrels and by disconnecting downspouts from the combined sewer and running them into green space or rain gardens around their home.”
The organization has distributed over 500 rain barrels in the last five years, held multiple stormwater workshops, and distributed native trees.
Cities that have implemented green infrastructure projects have similar residential “greening” programs. In the Washington D.C. area, RiverSmart Homes offers incentives to residents who reduce runoff from their properties. In Richmond, Va., Greening Virginia’s Capitol walks residents through installing rain barrels and rain gardens.
But these green technologies don’t just improve the water quality in the Little Conestoga and Conestoga Rivers, they improve the quality of life. Increased public green space fosters a sense of stewardship for the natural world, and colorful rain gardens increase property values.
“There's a lot of data and research about the impacts on crime, the impacts on property value, the impacts on retail sales, all from implementing a program like this. But it’s just something that feels good,” says Schroeder.
“Ultimately, the big vision is livability. It's about creating a home that we're all proud of living in, that we're all comfortable living in and all take pride in restoring and growing.”
For a more thorough look at stormwater runoff in Lancaster, check out this video from Save It Lancaster.
The Chesapeake Bay Trust, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Maryland will award more than $400,000 to cities and towns throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed through the newly expanded Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns grant initiative.
The Green Streets grants will help communities that want to accelerate greening efforts to improve livability, economic vitality, and protection of local waterways and natural areas. Projects selected will improve watershed protection and stormwater management through low-impact development practices, renewable energy use and green job creation.
“Green streets and green infrastructure are investments that create jobs and save money while also providing multiple environmental and quality of life benefits,” EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin said.
Grant assistance of up to $35,000 is available for infrastructure project planning and design. Grants of up to $100,000 will be awarded for implementation and construction.
Last year, 10 cities and towns in Maryland were awarded grants to fund the planning and design of green infrastructure projects. This year, the program is providing double the overall funding.
The Green Streets grant program is open to local governments and non-profit organizations in urban and suburban areas throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
For more information about the Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns grant program, visit the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s website. The deadline to submit proposals is March 9, 2012.
Ten Maryland communities have been awarded a total of more than $230,000 to design “green streets” that will reduce polluted stormwater runoff to the Chesapeake Bay and local rivers while creating green jobs in urban areas.
Baltimore City, Bladensburg, Capitol Heights, College Park, Colmar Manor, Cottage City, Edmonston, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, University Park each received grants of $25,000-$35,000 to plan and design “green streets” in their communities.
A “green street” is a street that:
Communities can save $27 for every $1 invested in green infrastructure, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Green Streets-Green Jobs Initiative grants are funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. For more information, visit the Trust's website.
The governors of the six Chesapeake Bay states, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission have submitted a letter to the U.S. Congress to include in the reauthorized Federal Surface Transportation Act a policy to reduce polluted stormwater runoff from federal highway construction and reconstruction projects.
Nationwide, roads and related infrastructure make up at least two-thirds of all paved, impervious surfaces, according to the letter. These areas promote runoff because they do not allow water to naturally soak into the ground. When it rains, pollutants from tailpipe emissions, fluid leaks, break linings and tire wear are picked up in runoff and carried to the nearest sewer or waterway.
The letter points to a 2002 study in Maryland that showed highways in the state accounted for 22 percent of nitrogen and 32 percent of phosphorus coming from urban areas. The study showed that highways and mobile sources annually contribute 36 million pounds of nitrogen that pollute Maryland’s land, air and water. By comparison, wastewater treatment plants contribute 17 million pounds of nitrogen per year.
Most federally funded highways were constructed without the stormwater runoff controls needed to protect the health of local streams, creeks and rivers. As a result, 66 percent of the waterways listed on the national Clean Water Act 303(d) list of impaired waters are polluted because of highway runoff.
Today, the green infrastructure techniques that relieve these impacts are well-known and, according to the letter, should be included in the reauthorized Federal Surface Transportation Act.
The letter was addressed to Reps. James L. Oberstar (D-MN) and John L. Mica (R-FL), who serve as chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
For more information, read the full letter to Congress.
Here at the American Society of Civil Engineers International Low-Impact Development (LID) Conference in Seattle, I’m swept up body and spirit by the growing throng of several hundred enthusiastic devotees to the cause of polluted runoff (a.k.a. “stormwater”) reduction. As a non-engineer EPA bureaucrat, I’m a first-time participant in this biennial LID pilgrimage. But after three days of PowerPoint presentations and an all-day field trip to Portland, Oregon, which is the other “LID Mecca,” I’m just about ready to compose my own rap tune out of cool LID lingo and design “treatment trains” (combinations of multiple LID techniques) in my sleep. When I get home I’ll definitely take a new look at my own roof downspouts and concrete driveway, and think about how much reinforcement my carport will need before I can put a vegetable garden on the roof!
I used to be an engineer when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of hilly central Connecticut. One of my favorite activities was building snow dams in the street gutter when the rain finally came and melted the snow on our particularly steep hill. It was great fun to pack the snow into a big ice dam and then, when the call came to go inside for dinner – invariably at 5:00 sharp – kick the dam open and send a big slushy gusher down the street. Down at the bottom of the hill it always flooded out of the street and into the Perraults’ front yard. (Maybe that’s why I felt guilty when I saw them at Sunday Mass.)
Of course at that time, I didn’t see any connection between that phenomenon – the runoff gusher – and the fact that we could always catch trout in the Quinnipiac River upstream of the city but never caught any downstream. Or why we never found any oysters when we went way downstream to tromp through the mud in Long Island Sound, even though my grandfather and uncles told great stories of burlap sacks full.
From what I’ve learned thus far, the “treatment train” at a house like mine would go something like this:
By that point, you should have pretty well mimicked what the Chesapeake Bay watershed used to be: a beautiful hardwood forest with clean waters in healthy streams. With this LID “treatment train,” now we can all be engineers! Choo Choo!