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Report Shows Benefits of Green Infrastructure's Impact on Clean Water

Natural Resources Defense Council

By Noah Garrison

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a new report called Rooftops to Rivers II: Green Strategies for Controlling Stormwater and Combined Sewer Overflows. The report discusses the considerable problems that stormwater runoff, which carries pollution to our rivers, lakes and beaches and causes sewage system overflows, poses for our communities, and ways that cities are using green infrastructure practices to clean up their waters, literally greening their cityscapes in the process. 

My colleagues David Beckman, Jon Devine and Rebecca Hammer have pointed out that green infrastructure is a simple and powerful solution to water pollution that makes cities function, from a water perspective, more like the natural landscape by reducing the amount of hardened, paved surfaces that generate rainfall runoff; that cities that use green infrastructure practices to capture rain where it falls have improved their ability to manage stormwater and reduce runoff pollution while saving money and beautifying neighborhoods at the same time—success stories that should encourage the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local officials to adopt policies to drive similar approaches and outcomes nationwide; and, provided specific examples of initiatives cities are taking to stop flooding, reduce pollution and use green infrastructure practices to take on their own unique water management challenges.  Overall, Rooftops to Rivers II profiles the approaches taken by 14 cities in the U.S. and Canada (as well as provides examples from several others), revealing just how far the use of green infrastructure has spread and just how adaptable it is to different regions and climates, to changes in geography and geology, and to the various issues faced by each city.  Green infrastructure works everywhere.

For example, Pittsburgh, whose metropolitan area’s 4,000 miles of sewer pipes and 450 combined and separate sewer overflow structures release 22 billion gallons of untreated municipal waste into surrounding waters every year, has enacted a stormwater ordinance that requires development sites larger than 10,000 square feet in size to retain the first one-inch of rainfall from any storm event on-site, using practices that infiltrate, evapotranspirate with plants, or capture and re-use the rain.  Publicly funded projects are required to retain 1.5 inches of rainfall on-site. The city has also begun a “Green Up Pittsburgh” initiative that offers support for community greening efforts.  The effort has led to more than 120 vacant city lots being transformed into functioning green spaces, removing blight and safety hazards, inspiring community pride and providing environmental benefits.

Toronto stands out for its investment in and long-term vision for green infrastructure to clean up and protect Lake Ontario, which was listed as an “Area of Concern” in a 1972 agreement between the U.S. and Canada.  In 2003 Toronto adopted its Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, a 25-year, $1 billion comprehensive strategy to use both traditional and green infrastructure to eliminate the adverse impacts of stormwater runoff.  Both separately and under the plan, Toronto has taken a multitude of steps to incorporate green infrastructure into city planning and development, including:

  • Establishing specific runoff volume reduction targets to encourage infiltration and rainwater harvesting

  • Initiated a voluntary pilot downspout disconnection program for property owners whose downspouts were directly connected to the city’s combined or separate sewer systems.  Based on the success of the program, in 2007 the City Council voted to make downspout disconnections mandatory throughout the city

  • Formed a Green Roof Task Force to investigate and promote the benefits of green roofs.  A 2005 study estimated that if green roofs were installed on every flat roof in the city, Toronto would save $270 million in municipal capital costs and nearly $30 million annually in benefits.  In 2009 the City Council adopted construction standards requiring all new buildings and retrofits with more than 2,000 square meters (21,500 square feet) of floor area to include a green roof in their design.

And Kansas City, M0., which created a stormwater utility in 1999 that assesses fees based on the size of a property’s impervious, or runoff generating surface area, has recently broken ground on a 100-acre pilot project that represents the largest focused installation of green infrastructure as the sole control for combined sewer overflows in the nation.  The Middle Blue River Basin Pilot Project, located in the city’s Marlborough neighborhood, will potentially save the city $10 million in capital costs relative to what would have been spent if only traditional stormwater infrastructure was used.

Dozens of other cities across the country have begun incorporating green infrastructure in a similar manner:

  • Indianapolis has completed a Green Infrastructure Master Plan for the city and is using green infrastructure practices like tree plantings, rain gardens and other techniques that absorb rainfall to meet the terms of a federal consent decree that requires a reduction in combined sewer overflows, achieving significant cost savings relative to traditional infrastructure in the process.  Cleveland and Cincinnati are likewise looking to green infrastructure as a means of meeting the terms of consent decrees that require those cities to reduce the amount of combined sewer overflows that send polluted sewage into their waters.

  • Minneapolis has a stormwater ordinance requiring public and private development sites of 1-acre or more to include on-site stormwater management, and is greening a 143-acre, formerly underserved community now known as heritage park in a project that will create a system of interconnected ponds and trails and bring park-like amenities to area residents while using natural systems to treat stormwater runoff

  • Jacksonville, Fla. has partnered with the EPA to focus resources on its neglected downtown urban core, using green infrastructure to reduce runoff and add open space for its residents.  The city is in the process of developing a green infrastructure guidance manual as a tool for developers, architects, engineers, government employees and  anyone seeking clear permitting specifications for green infrastructure construction

  • Tucson, Ariz., which receives an average rainfall of only about 11 inches per year, has embraced rainfall as a valuable resource, and now requires rainwater harvesting to supplement other available water supplies. The city adopted the nation’s first municipal rainwater harvesting ordinance for commercial projects, which took effect on June 1, 2010 and requires facilities subject to the ordinance to meet 50 percent of their landscape irrigation water demand using harvested rainwater.

Green infrastructure works.  It works everywhere.  And it provides benefits that extend well beyond water quality.  As these, and other cities profiled in Rooftops to Rivers II demonstrate, there’s a wide array of approaches, practices, and ultimately, solutions to the problems caused by stormwater runoff that green infrastructure can provide.  And if your community hasn’t embraced the practice yet, then Rooftops to Rivers II provides plenty of examples for how green infrastructure can be used in your city, and how it can help clean up waters while saving your city money and creating a greener, healthier landscape.

For more information, click here.

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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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