Quantcast
Business

How Green Infrastructure Minimizes the Impacts of Climate Change

With support from The Earth Institute, writers Caswell Holloway, Carter Strickland, Michael Gerrard and Daniel Firger recently published “Solving the CSO Conundrum: Green Infrastructure and the Unfulfilled Promise of Federal-Municipal Cooperation” in Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Collectively, the authors represent expertise in climate change, urban sustainability planning, environmental protection, and environmental policy and law. In this article, the authors propose regulatory and policy reform to develop comprehensive, locally led infrastructure and sustainability initiatives that improve public health and the environment. They look specifically at the case of water management as an opportunity for federal and local governments to work cooperatively, specifically through the implementation of green infrastructure systems. The following is an overview of the publication.

Stormwater Management and Green Infrastructure

In the absence of federal policy on climate change, cities across the U.S. are making great strides in sustainability planning. We are seeing this for a variety of reasons. For one, the effects of climate change are felt more tangibly at the local level, and because city governments can make decisions that are attuned to local needs, innovative and flexible in design. These initiatives are designed to improve public health, environmental quality, overall quality of life and economic development and can engage citizens in the development process.

In the absence of federal policy on climate change, cities across the U.S. are making great strides in sustainability planning. These initiatives are designed to improve public health, environmental quality, overall quality of life and economic development and can engage citizens in the development process. Photo credit: Shutterstock

One issue cities face is the challenge of reducing water pollution from stormwater runoff and combined sewage overflows (CSOs). In most U.S. cities, stormwater runoff is combined with wastewater streams into one single combined sewer system, leading to overflow during times of heavy rain and flood. Stormwater runoff is a large source of water pollution—especially in cities where the urban landscape is dense with pavement and concrete.

Many cities are addressing this issue with green infrastructure implementation. Green infrastructure is an approach that mimics or restores natural hydrological features to allow for the capture and reuse of stormwater—such as with green roofs and filtration planters. This is in contrast to traditional grey infrastructure, which refers to the usual stormwater pipes and storage tanks. Green infrastructure systems reduce stormwater runoff by filtering water through vegetation, soil and other media, slowing and reducing the flow of water. These green features also have many co-benefits including reducing the heat island effect and improving air quality, and have climate change-related benefits like cooling buildings and reducing the need for electricity powered air conditioning.

Regulatory Issues

Who regulates the environment? Since the 1970s, federal level agencies in the U.S. have had the authority to regulate environmental resources. While it can be beneficial for the federal government to have complete authority in certain cases, environmental regulation is by its nature widely distributed across different levels of government. The authors note that because many sustainability initiatives are implemented at the local level, the interaction between local, federal and state regulatory authorities is significant. For example, federal mandates often create a mismatch between capital budgets and the priorities of local citizens and taxpayers. In the case of stormwater management, there are a number of issues.

As of 1987, stormwater is regulated under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act grants authority to states to then impose requirements on municipalities to meet federal water quality standards—often in the form of fines, discharge limits, or rigid mandates. However, local government officials don’t get much of a say, even though they are the ones who are designing the neighborhood, and building and maintaining water infrastructure. In addition, there are challenges with costs. Stormwater management doesn’t receive the same level of financial assistance as do other components under the Clean Water Act; in many cases cities are essentially told what they must do, how they must do it, and that they must also bear the cost.

The Way Forward

The authors see potential in addressing some of these regulatory issues, especially as cities are taking on increasing roles in sustainability planning. They suggest new approaches to regulation – ones that involve multiple community stakeholders, creative problem-solving across traditional silos, and cooperative agreements across government agencies. The case of green infrastructure provides an excellent example of how to integrate city-level initiatives with federal regulation.

Some cities are taking up a more integrated approach to stormwater management, by making long term investments in both green and grey infrastructure. In contrast, the federal approach tends to be more rigid, and goals are often compartmentalized in different programs, even though many of these goals are aligned and contain initiatives that impact one another. The authors argue that investment decisions that are aligned with regulatory planning at the municipal level would lead to more efficient allocation of resources, and solutions that are better tailored to local conditions. To illustrate their point, the authors looked to New York City. New York is well known for its innovative sustainability planning, and in 2010 released its Green Infrastructure Plan, which was formalized in 2012 when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) agreed to reduce CSOs and achieve higher water quality standards through a combination of grey and green infrastructure, with increased investment in green infrastructure technologies. The agreement took a flexible approach, setting broad performance goals while giving the city the flexibility to decide how it wants to meet them. This is a groundbreaking test case of adaptive management, and has the potential to provide a set of best practices that other municipalities can draw from.

The authors also acknowledge that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken some positive steps towards increased flexibility. They highlighted EPA’s recent Integrated Framework, based on an adaptive management, agreement-based framework that includes participation of the community—an important step to truly integrated planning. This new integrated framework represents a “real shift in both tone and substance for EPA,” although the extent of meaningful change is still unclear.

Cities are taking action to implement sustainability initiatives that impact multiple sectors, while the federal government is barely beginning to move away from using tools that are unsuited to address sustainability. The EPA often works in a manner that conflicts with how cities operate, when it should be working with and learning from them. Fortunately, federal and local governments can work more collaboratively to improve sustainability. The authors show how water quality in urban areas can be improved through locally-designed solutions, using green infrastructure to reduce CSOs and stormwater pollution, while complying with federal law. It’s therefore no surprise that: “many of the green infrastructure innovations pioneered by cities are now making their way into federal programs and initiatives.”

Caswell F. Holloway is Deputy Chief Operating Officer of Bloomberg LP, and from 2011–2013 was New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Operations.

Carter H. Strickland, Jr. is Vice President for Water and Natural Resources at HDR, Inc., and was Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection from 2011–2014.

Michael B. Gerrard is Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School, and Senior Counsel to Arnold & Porter LLP.

Daniel M. Firger, the former Associate Director and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, is with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The Earth Institute is made up of more than 30 research centers and over 850 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, staff and students. To learn more about the Earth Institute’s education programs such as the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy or the MS in Sustainability Management, click here.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

World Trade Center Ship Traced to Colonial-Era Philadelphia

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Animals
A reindeer in Sweden. Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd) / GNU Free Documentation License

Reindeer Numbers Have Fallen by More than Half in 2 Decades

It's a sad Christmas for the world's reindeer—the antlered Arctic grazers associated with all things Santa Claus. Their numbers have fallen by more than half in the past 20 years, and climate change is likely to blame.

The latest numbers come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2018 Arctic Report Card, which listed the increasing impacts of global warming on the earth's northernmost region, as EcoWatch has already reported. But the loss of Rangifer tarandus—called caribou in North America and Greenland and reindeer in Siberia and Europe—is of note because it threatens to further throw Arctic ecosystems and cultures out of whack. Reindeer are important prey for wolves and biting flies, and a key source of food and clothing for indigenous groups.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Mackinac Bridge from Straits of Mackinac. Gregory Varnum / Wikimedia Commons

Michigan Gov. Signs Bill to Keep Line 5 Pipeline Flowing

Michigan's outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation on Wednesday that creates a new government authority to oversee a proposed oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac to effectively allow Canadian oil to keep flowing through the Great Lakes.

The controversial tunnel will encase a replacement segment for Enbridge Energy's aging Line 5 pipelines that run along the bottom of the Straits, a narrow waterway that connects Lakes Huron and Michigan.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
The illegal La Pampa gold mine, seen here in 2017, has devastated the Peruvian Amazon and spread poisonous mercury. Planet Labs

Unprecedented New Map Unveils Illegal Mining Destroying Amazon

A first-of-its-kind map has unveiled widespread environmental damage and contamination of the Amazon rainforest caused by the rise illegal mining.

The survey, released Monday by the Amazon Socio-Environmental Geo-Referenced Information Project (RAISG), identifies at least 2,312 sites and 245 areas of prospecting or extraction of minerals such as gold, diamonds and coltan in six Amazonian countries—Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. It also identified 30 rivers affected by mining and related activities.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Mako sharks killed at the South Jersey Shark Tournament in June 2017. Lewis Pugh

Shark Fishing Tournaments Devalue Ocean Wildlife and Harm Marine Conservation Efforts

By Rick Stafford

Just over three years ago, I was clinging to a rock in 20 meters of water, trying to stop the current from pulling me out to sea. I peered out into the gloom of the Pacific. Suddenly, three big dark shapes came into view, moving in a jerky, yet somehow smooth and majestic manner. I looked directly into the left eyes of hammerhead sharks as they swam past, maybe 10 meters from me. I could see the gill slits, the brown skin. But most of all, what struck me was just how big these animals are—far from the biggest sharks in the seas, but incredibly powerfully built and solid. These are truly magnificent creatures.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics
Sen. Joe Manchin and United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts held a press conference on Oct. 3, 2017. Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

Coal-Friendly Manchin Named Top Dem on Senate Energy Panel

After weeks of discord over the potential appointment, Sen. Joe Manchin, the pro-coal Democrat of West Virginia, was named the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday.

Many Democrats and environmental groups were adamantly opposed to Manchin serving as the top Democrat on the committee that oversees policies on climate change, public lands and fossil fuel production.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Hikers on the Mt. Hollywood Trail in Griffin Park, Calif. while a brush fire burned in the Angeles National Forest on Aug. 26, 2009. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Major Health Study Shows Benefits of Combating Climate Change

During the holiday season, people often drink toasts to health. There's something more we can do to ensure that we and others will enjoy good health now and into the future: combat climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Employees of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance working together with students and faculty of Leech Lake Tribal Collage to construct solar panels, 2017. Ryan James White

A Tribe in Northern Minnesota Shows the Country How to Do Community Solar

By Susan Cosier

Last summer on a reservation in northern Minnesota, students from Leech Lake Tribal College earned their solar installation licenses while they dug, drilled and connected five photovoltaic arrays. The panels shine blue on the plain, reflecting the sky as they generate roughly 235 megawatts of electricity a year, enough to help 100 families pay their energy bills. This is community solar in action.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Arches National Park. Chris Dodds / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Trump Auctions Off 150,000 Acres of Public Lands for Fracking Near Utah National Parks

On Tuesday the Trump administration offered more than 150,000 acres of public lands for fossil-fuel extraction near some of Utah's most iconic landscapes, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!