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Friday, July 26, 2013

Green Infrastructure and Issues in Managing Urban Stormwater

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

For decades, stormwater, or runoff, was considered largely a problem of excess rainwater or snowmelt impacting communities. Prevailing engineering practices were to move stormwater away from cities as rapidly as possible to avoid potential damages from flooding. More recently, these practices have evolved and come to recognize stormwater as a resource that, managed properly within communities, has multiple benefits.

Stormwater problems occur because rainwater that once soaked into the ground now runs off hard surfaces like rooftops, parking lots, and streets in excessive amounts. This runoff flows into storm drains and ultimately into lakes and streams, carrying pollutants that are harmful to aquatic life and public health. Traditional approaches to managing urban stormwater have utilized so-called “gray infrastructure,” including pipes, gutters, ditches, and storm sewers. More recently, interest has grown in “green infrastructure” technologies and practices in place of or in combination with gray infrastructure. Green infrastructure systems use or mimic natural processes to infiltrate, evapotranspire, or reuse stormwater runoff on the site where it is generated. These practices keep rainwater out of the sewer system, thus preventing sewer overflows and also reducing the amount of untreated runoff discharged to surface waters.

Cities’ adoption of green technologies and practices has increased, motivated by several factors. One motivation is environmental and resource benefits. Advocates, including environmental groups, landscape architects, and urban planners, have drawn attention to these practices. But an equally important motivation, perhaps larger than environmental benefits, is cost-saving opportunities for cities that face enormous costs of stormwater infrastructure projects to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act. Other potential benefits include reduced flood damages, improved air quality, and improved urban aesthetics. At the same time, barriers to implementing green infrastructure include lack of information on performance and cost-effectiveness and uncertainty whether the practices will contribute to achieving water quality improvements.

Another key barrier is lack of funding. At the federal level, there is no single source of dedicated federal funding to design and implement green infrastructure solutions. Without assistance, communities take several approaches to financing wastewater and stormwater projects; the most frequently used tool is issuance of municipal bonds. As a dedicated funding source for projects, the number of local stormwater utilities that charge fees has grown in recent years. Many municipalities try to encourage homeowners and developers to incorporate green infrastructure practices by offering incentives. The most common types of local incentive mechanisms are stormwater fee discounts or credits, development incentives, rebates or financing for installation of specific practices, and award and recognition programs.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) interest in and support for green infrastructure has grown since the 1990s. The agency has provided technical assistance and information and developed policies to facilitate and encourage green infrastructure solutions and incorporation in Clean Water Act permits. Pressed by municipalities about the challenges and costs that they face in addressing needs for wastewater and stormwater projects, in 2012 EPA issued an integrated permitting and planning framework for water infrastructure projects. The intention of the framework document is to provide communities with flexibility to prioritize needed water infrastructure investments. One component of the framework is identifying green infrastructure opportunities. EPA also is working with communities to refine how the agency determines when an infrastructure project is affordable for individual communities. Green infrastructure also is expected to be a key element of an upcoming EPA rulemaking to revise stormwater permit regulations.

Congress has shown some interest in these issues. In the 112
th Congress, bills were introduced to support research and implementation of green infrastructure and also to codify an integrated approach to permitting and planning of water infrastructure projects. None of these bills has been re-introduced in the 113th Congress. Also in the 112th Congress, a House subcommittee held hearings on EPA’s efforts to provide flexibility to communities in prioritizing water infrastructure. Overall, many in Congress remain concerned about how municipalities will pay for needed investments in water infrastructure projects generally—not limited to green infrastructure—and what role the federal government can and should play in those efforts.

Date of Report: July 28, 2013
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R43131
Price: $29.95

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