Along the streets of Carlisle, PA, Mark Malarich looks for opportunities to squeeze in some green. The borough is home to 18,500 people concentrated in a 5.5-square-mile area filled with historic homes and paved spaces.
Malarich, the borough public works director, manages stormwater in a community that has been steadily gaining hardened surfaces since it was settled in 1751. In everything his department does, from repaving parking lots to tearing up streets, his staff is trained to think about where a nice swale or a rain garden can be installed.
“It is part of our requirements now, to think that way,” Malarich said. “When scheduling maintenance projects or beginning any municipal public works project, we automatically look for the potential to incorporate some type of green infrastructure.”
Carlisle has found that integrating green infrastructure into existing projects makes sense, saves money and smooths out the process of meeting its pollution reduction requirements. The borough has been working to control stormwater for a long time; it’s had time to figure out a system that works.
How to streamline that process for communities was the subject of a workshop offered by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay last fall that brought together municipalities, and state and federal regulators as well as funders to explore what successful communities have done. That workshop is compiled in a report, Streamlining Integrated Infrastructure Implementation: Dig Once.
As the report’s name implies, integrating stormwater infrastructure with other capital projects for roads, utilities, parks and schools provides an opportunity to save time and money, but successfully doing so requires planning and coordination from government departments that are not necessarily accustomed to working together.
Streamlining that work is important to the bottom line: There are 552 Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits in the Chesapeake Bay region, and all are facing new regulatory challenges, including meeting goals set under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or “pollution diet.”
Green infrastructure refers to spots of green within an urban community designed to mimic natural systems — such as rain gardens or vegetated swales — that collect and slow rainwater, thereby allowing it to slowly seep into the ground, filtering it through layers of soil and plant roots as it makes it way to a river or stream.
They may still require a lot human engineering, but the finished result in many cases can be less expensive and more environmentally beneficial than gray infrastructure. These actions may also provide secondary benefits such as parking lots interspersed with islands of green that treat stormwater while providing shade and cleaner air. Brightly colored native wildflowers in rain gardens on a main street filter sidewalk runoff while welcoming visitors to a town.
Staff at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which funded the workshop and report, have helped hundreds of communities and nonprofits implement green infrastructure projects, and have seen firsthand the obstacles that even experienced communities face. As these projects become more common, the actual digging up of pavement and the installation of gardens, soil and trees in areas where utilities, and “hard” infrastructure such as pipes already exists — sometimes for hundreds of years — continues to offer surprises.
“We continue to see a lot of projects that encounter unforeseen consequences related to public infrastructure,” said Jake Reilly, director of Chesapeake Bay Programs at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “Some have significant delays and need another year to finish — in extreme cases, they can’t get beyond the issues.”
Green infrastructure is still a new concept to local governments — and only one item on a very long list of responsibilities from running police departments to making sure the trash is picked up.
“It’s expensive to get grants and it’s expensive to install green infrastructure, no matter the funding source,” said Mary Gattis, coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee and the lead author for the project. “We want to get ahead of processes that prevent the loss of funds, loss of projects and loss of time. We can’t make a perfect world, but we can make a better world so you’re not wasting resources.”
Here are some of the suggestions outlined in the report as well as advice from successful communities.
Long before a shovel hits the ground, someone has to be a leader — or a champion of green infrastructure in the community to provide coordination and improve communication. If a public works director is excited about rain gardens and swales, but the city manager could care less and the parks director doesn’t want a blade of grass changed, projects will be stalled, if they happen at all.
“None of those things sound like finance but they are hugely important components,” said Jennifer Cotting, associate director of the Environmental Finance Center. “They can have the best plan in the world, but without a champion, the investment in water quality isn’t going to happen.”
The center, which is part of the University of Maryland, has worked on 50 stormwater finance projects across all of the Bay states.
Carlisle Borough hired a champion in Malarich. He’s trained as an environmental engineer and worked with several municipalities on their stormwater permits before coming to the borough. His advice to built-out communities with little space for projects is to look to areas where there’s more turf than pavement — places like colleges, business parks, school districts and churches — and talk to them early in the process.
“Hold an outreach meeting with partners where land is available,” Malarich said. “For us, it was the school district and the [Dickinson] college. We identified projects we could do there and put it into the Capital Improvement Plan.”
The City of Lancaster is a national leader for its green infrastructure program. The city and its staff have received accolades for individual projects as well as its 2011 citywide Green Infrastructure Plan.
Ruth Hocker, stormwater program manager for Lancaster City, stressed the importance of making sure a government communicates with its public works crew — the people that dig the soil, vacuum the pervious pavement and weed the gardens.
“Lots of communities talk about the importance of educating their elected officials,” she said. “That is important, but it’s just as important to educate the people who are maintaining all of these structures throughout the city.”
Pool your resources
The Eastern Shore of Maryland is known for its charming towns that mix history with Bay views, quaint farms and vacation spots. Some of the more rural communities on the Eastern Shore were struggling with cleaning their local streams and creeks and the Chesapeake Bay. A Healthy Waters Roundtable, led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation brought these communities together to brainstorm solutions. The answer was to work together and share limited resources.
Recently, the CBF was awarded a $316,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to set up a formal structure between counties and small communities. Funds will be used to hire a regional technical service provider and as seed money for restoration projects.
The collaboration includes Talbot and Queen Ann counties, the towns of Easton and Oxford and the cities of Salisbury and Cambridge. Depending on size and needs, each community contributed $6,000 to $37,000 to the effort. It also got funding from the state of Maryland and nonprofit partners. Combined, the entire effort is funded at $630,000.
“Half of these communities are regulated and half not,” said Alan Girard, Eastern Shore director for the CBF. “This is a way to pay a little bit of money in and get more benefit than they would if they were to do it on their own.”
Similarly, in rural Blair County, PA, 14 municipalities decided to form an intergovernmental committee and hire a regional MS4 coordinator to help them implement a joint Chesapeake Bay Pollution Reduction Plan as well as each community’s individual permit needs. The plan, required by the state’s MS4 permit for communities within the Bay watershed, outlines green infrastructure projects throughout two impaired watersheds.
“She will facilitate the Intergovernmental Stormwater Committee and will be assisting each municipality as their individual needs dictate,” said Donna Fisher, director of the Blair County Conservation District, where the position is based. “The increased level of management on a regional basis will serve all municipalities and although it will not lessen their responsibilities, it may lessen their workload.”
Funding & Financing
The first thing Cotting, of the Environmental Finance Center, does when working with a new community is tell them “grants aren’t going to get you there.” The center, which is part of the University of Maryland, has worked with 50 communities in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia on financing stormwater programs.
EFC staff will pore over the capital improvement plans of a municipality to find cost savings before looking at financing or funding mechanisms.
“What we’re looking for is [already funded] projects that don’t necessarily sound like stormwater management but where there are opportunities to add green infrastructure,” Cotting said.
Even when grants are part of the strategy, their timing doesn’t always line up with the long process of planning, development and public outreach required for a large-scale infrastructure project. In some cases, communities have had to return money to foundations and state offices when the grant period ended long before the project was finished.
Lori Yeich, a regional supervisor with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, regularly advises communities how they can “dig once” by adding green infrastructure to their community parks as well as playground and sports facilities when they are seeking grant funds for upgrades.
“The first thing I do with a municipality is have them write a list of all of the grants available with their deadlines for application,” Yeich said. “That way we can match up when they can apply for [funds] before they submit a proposal to our programs.”
Small communities with a high percentage of paved areas can combine their efforts and lower costs by using the talents and skills their employees possess — and borrowing skills from their neighbors.
The Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority, which has managed the wastewater systems of 35 communities since 1962 in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County — a former coal-mining region of cash-strapped municipalities — is taking responsibility for stormwater permits in those communities.
“It’s a lot of work to do in five years, but it’s the right thing to do,” Tomaine said, speaking of the five-year lifespan of the permit. “We felt we could be more efficient than each individual community taking on the program on their own. This is a regional problem. And we can handle it.”
Luzerne County has to reduce 3 million pounds of sediment in five years, and the complex infrastructure needed to set up a program is overwhelming to the individual communities.
“Some of these municipalities don’t even have a secretary to answer their phone,” Tomaine said.
Through combining their resources, the 35 communities with a collective population of 200,000 could save $57 million to $274 million over the next two decades.
“We all have a responsibility to clean up the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay because no single municipality could meet this obligation alone,” said Sen. John Yudichak, a Democrat who serves two counties in northern Pennsylvania. “The regional stormwater project — designed to improve water quality and wildlife habitats throughout the watershed — represents the most comprehensive environmental project in northeast Pennsylvania in the last 40 years.”
As smaller communities come together to meet their obligations it is a matter of economies of scale, said the CBF’s Girard of the Eastern Shore effort.
“It’s expensive, it’s difficult and it’s not going to get done if somebody doesn’t ask the questions, he said. “However small the slice of the pie, it’s still a slice. To be fair, everybody has to address their own sources.”
The full report is found at chesapeakebay.net/documents/GI_Integration_Final_Workshop_Report.pdf.