Bay Journal

Greening of Lancaster, PA, goes through the roof

Parking lots, playgrounds also get cost-saving makeovers.

  • By Rona Kobell on April 30, 2012
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Live Green Lancaster Director Fritz Schroeder shows some of the plants growing on the nearly 9,000-square foot green roof on top of the Tellus 360 shop in downtown Lancaster. (Dave Harp) This Lancaster city park includes a basketball court resurfaced with porous pavement, and reconfigured storm drains that send stormwater to a gravel mat instead of directly to the river.  (Dave Harp) Lancaster Public Works Director Charlotte Katzenmoyer oversaw the repaving of one alley with porous pavement - a project she said will capture an additional 200,000 to 300,000 gallons of stormwater that would otherwise be headed for the Conestoga River. (Dave Harp)

From the rooftop of the Tellus 360 shop in Downtown Lancaster, Charlotte Katzenmoyer can see the Victorian shops and homes that have long made the city a tourist stop on the way to Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

But the most interesting part of the view is what's below her feet. Katzenmoyer, the city's public works director, is standing on a mix of sprouting green plants, compost and stone - a 9,000-square-foot green roof. And as large as it is, the roof over the furniture and clothing shop on King Street is not even the city's largest. That honor belongs to the National Novelty Brush Co., a company founded more than 50 years ago.

Since the city began implementing its green infrastructure plan in 2011, it has helped build nine green roofs. Katzenmoyer has overseen the repaving of one alley with porous pavement - a project she says will capture an additional 200,000 to 300,000 gallons of stormwater that would otherwise be headed for the Conestoga River.

The city has resurfaced four parking lots with porous concrete, as well as a basketball court. It has reconfigured the storm drains at one local park so that the stormwater goes into a catch basin that is then filtered into a gravel bed - resulting in cleaner water seeping into the ground. And the work in Lancaster has just begun - about 40 more projects are in the pipeline.

All this work will reduce the amount of stormwater that goes into the city's combined storm and sanitary sewage system, as well as the 750 million gallons of combined sewage-stormwater overflows that now reach the river.

"Our focus is to try to manage stormwater where it falls, rather than to try to untangle the web," Katzenmoyer said. "We'd like to get to it before it gets into a system where we are making it dirty."

Lancaster may not be the place that comes to mind when people think about the most progressive cities. Amish buggies still ply the main roads just outside the city limits, and it's not unusual to see Old Order Amish or Mennonites doing business at the city's main gathering place, the Central Market. Lancaster County is one of the watershed's three "hot spots" for agriculture pollution; the others are the Delmarva Peninsula and the Shenandoah Valley. Some Lancaster dairy farms operate as they did 100 years ago and are reluctant to put in pollution-controlling measures.

But in the business of stormwater management, Katzenmoyer and her team are leaving past practices behind and moving into a future that they hope will be both less expensive for taxpayers and more beneficial for the river.

The stormwater problems began more than two centuries ago, when the United States began to be intensively developed. Before that, when rain fell onto open fields and forests, the water naturally seeped into the ground. But when those fields became streets and houses, the rain hit them hard and hurtled toward the lowest points - waterways.

City public works officials created a warren of pipes to carry that water away from buildings and homes, both to protect property from floods and to safeguard human health. Along the way, the water collected chemicals from the industrialized world - oil, lead, nitrogen and carbon. In many cities like Lancaster, the stormwater system was connected to the sewage system. In these combined systems, the pipes would overflow during heavy rains, sending a mix of untreated sewage and stormwater into the waterways. As the impervious surface increased, overflows became more of a problem, said EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale.

"Obviously, over the years we've learned that it's not a good idea to send partially treated waste to our water bodies," DiPasquale said.

The preferred treatment method for combined stormwater systems was to collect all of the stormwater overflows in a tank, treat it and discharge it into the rivers and streams. Several cities did just that in the early 1990s as the EPA began forcing the United States' largest cities to treat their stormwater.

But some progressive cities, such as Portland, OR, and Chicago, were experimenting with the idea of green infrastructure, in which the goal is to prevent the overflows by reducing runoff. Instead of being piped into drains, more rainfall is allowed to soak into grassy parks or through porous pavement or is retained on green roofs. If they had to spend millions of dollars to upgrade stormwater, their managers reasoned, why not give the public a benefit? Instead of building a huge holding tank, how about a park? How about planting more trees?

More recently, Cleveland, Syracuse, Philadelphia and Seattle have joined the effort.

When the EPA began mandating smaller cities to tackle their stormwater, Katzenmoyer was ready to embrace green infrastructure. The city secured nearly $1 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to pay for projects, both private and public. With the help of Fritz Schroeder of Live Green Lancaster, a nonprofit focused on sustainable living in the city, Katzenmoyer found large landowners, like Franklin and Marshall College, who were interested in pervious pavement. The college is now the proud owner of five green roofs.

Because Lancaster is a small city and Katzenmoyer oversees both public works and parks, it's been a bit easier for her to push ahead than it has been for some of her big-city colleagues. Under the city's green infrastructure plan, if an alley needs to be repaved, the city will spend a little extra money to repave it with porous pavers and a gravel catchment area. If a parking lot needs to be resurfaced, workers will use porous pavement and place rain gardens in the curb areas.

Recently, as she showed off the city's projects, Katzenmoyer snapped pictures of a few maintenance issues, including a rip in some porous material under a swing set, and e-mailed them to her staff so they could fix them quickly.

It helps that Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray has been a huge supporter of the approach and now chairs the Local Government Advisory Committee for the Chesapeake Bay Program. It also helps that the city has partnered with Live Green and Schroeder, an energetic Lancaster native who seems to know everyone in town. His organization's website, www.saveitlancaster.com, offers a multitude of tips for conserving water and reducing runoff.

DiPasquale has been a major supporter of the Lancaster effort. But not everyone within the EPA and Region 3 is on board.

"They continue to send us letters asking for more clarification, and we continue to answer them," Katzenmoyer said. "They're coming around, but I think it's slow."

Schroeder added: "Some in the EPA know about it. Others, we're literally taking them to their first green alley, their first green roof."

DiPasquale said that he likes the green infrastructure approach because it provides benefits beyond stormwater control. Green roofs reduce the "heat island" effect when too much asphalt is in one place. Water seeping into the ground can replenish surfacewater streams.

The tide for green infrastructure took a dramatic turn in 2009, when the National Research Council produced a report on green solutions to stormwater discharges. It is likely to become more popular as cities face the one-two punch of more mandates to clean up stormwater and less cash with which to do it. Katzenmoyer estimated that the green infrastructure will cost $140 million over 25 years, while a storage-and-treatment system would cost more than $300 million - and would not include benefits such as a repaved basketball court and more parks.

In April, American Rivers released their report, "Going Green to Save Green: Economic Benefits of Green Infrastructure Practices." In it, Jeff Odefay, the organization's director of stormwater programs, explains the many benefits of programs such as parks, gardens and pervious pavement. Among them: reducing energy costs and damage from floods, saving water, protecting the public from diseases that stem from water pollution, enhancing air quality and safeguarding fish populations - all for less money than conventional methods.

"There really has been over the past 10 years a shift from skepticism to a cautious embrace to an understanding that this approach works very well, in many cases," Odefay said. "One of the objections has always been, 'hey, this stuff costs too much.' But that is not actually true, and you get all these other benefits."

Cities all over the watershed may increasingly embrace green infrastructure as they face escalating stormwater control costs. Maryland just passed a law requiring its nine largest counties and Baltimore City to charge a fee for managing stormwater, and Pennsylvania is considering a similar bill. Barely a day after the Maryland legislature ended, officials from several of the affected counties said their residents couldn't afford to pay it.

Figuring out what to do with stormwater has always been a difficult question, and one sometimes made more complicated by the agreements cities have signed to reduce their pollution. In Washington, DC, George Hawkins oversees Blue Plains, a plant that treats about 300 million gallons of sewage a day. And yet, he said, that job is predictable compared to stormwater management.

"The hardest kinds of facilities to build are the ones you use once in awhile," said Hawkins, who is general manager of DC Water. "How big do you build it? If you build it big enough to handle the storm that comes every 200 years then it doesn't get used. But if you build it for the smaller ones and have a periodic huge storm, then you're in trouble."

Hawkins said he isn't surprised that many in water-management agencies have only recently begun to put more attention on stormwater. A public works director's first job is to safeguard drinking water. The next would be to make sure the sewage-treatment system is functioning properly.

When Katzenmoyer first came to Lancaster in 2001, that was exactly what she did. After upgrading those facilities, she turned her attention to the long-term control plan for the stormwater system.

In her research, she found memos from city council meetings dating back to 1906 acknowledging the combined sewer system was a problem and suggesting the storm and sanitary systems be separated. At that time, it would have cost $2 million. Nothing ever happened, and in 1929 the city received permission to keep it the way it was.

But Lancaster is ready to show that times have indeed changed. In June, the Choose Clean Water Coalition's annual conference will take place in Lancaster, the first time the meeting has been held outside of Washington, DC.

Hilary Harp Falk, Choose Clean Water Coalition's executive director, said the group always intended to move the meeting around the watershed. Lancaster, she said, offered the perfect opportunity.

"The theme of the conference is, 'clean water starts here.' We thought, what better place to make that case than Lancaster? It offers the perfect backdrop to showcase solutions," she said. "There are really two stories to be told - the urban story and the agriculture story. And the wonderful thing is that, in Lancaster, we can tell both."

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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