In 2005, Dov Weitman, chief of the nonpoint source control branch at the EPA, returned to Washington, DC, from “an amazing consciousness-raising process” and wanted to share the experience with his colleagues.
Weitman had just served on the jury of the Houston Low Impact Development Competition, a contest that challenged development professionals to find new, low-impact ways to handle stormwater.
In a memo to his staff, he said the competition caused developers, civil engineers, architects and landscape architects to think differently — and more creatively — about stormwater, and he was convinced similar competitions — and benefits — could be replicated nationwide.
Houston’s LID competition was not the first, but it is cited as the inspiration for similar events that have taken hold in the Chesapeake watershed in recent years as the region struggles to find innovative ways to reduce the environmental harm caused by stormwater — and control costs as well.
Richmond’s Smart Stormwater Design Competition, the second Virginia-based competition in three years, is seeking submissions. The winners of DC Water’s Green Infrastructure Challenge will be announced in January. The Chesapeake Stormwater Network has just launched the “BUBBA” award to highlight the best projects built around the watershed.
Taking cues from TV show competitions, LID contests employ lightning-fast final presentations before dignitary judges to energize a room full of movers and shakers. There are prizes — usually cash — but in some cases, like the DC Water Green Infrastructure Challenge, winners receive funding to construct the winning designs.
LID is a relatively new approach to site design and stormwater management. The Low Impact Development Center defines it as, “an approach to land development (or re-development) that works with nature to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible.”
The LID approach minimizes impervious surfaces and preserves and recreates natural landscape features, but the term may also be used to describe the practices that accomplish these principles: bioretention systems, rain gardens, vegetated rooftops, rainwater harvesting and permeable pavement.
The term, LID, is sometimes used interchangeably with green infrastructure, or GI, to contrast with traditional “gray infrastructure” — stormwater systems that emphasize removing water from sites quickly, usually with damaging results to streams that receive sudden, large volumes of untreated stormwater.
But LID and GI have other benefits that are essential for sustaining natural systems and making the built environment pleasant for people. LID Center President Neil Weinstein, wrote in 2008 that LID goes beyond recharging groundwater, protecting surface water supplies and reducing pollution. It “reduces potable water demand through the use of cisterns and also improves air quality and reduces urban heat island effects through the use of vegetation and trees. LID also improves neighborhoods by beautifying the common spaces and adding aesthetic value.”
LID in the Chesapeake watershed
In the Chesapeake watershed, LID has been talked about — and practiced to some degree — for some time. Larry Coffman, often cited as one of the earliest proponents of LID, began implementing LID in Prince George’s County, MD, in the 1990s. Soon, other Bay communities, including Montgomery County, MD, and Stafford County, VA, incorporated LID principles in their codes.
LID and green infrastructure practices got a boost when the Chesapeake Bay Total Maxiumum Daily Load was completed in 2010. State watershed implementation plans written to meet the TMDL goals identified LID tools as key components for reducing nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from nonpoint source pollution, including urban and suburban stormwater.
Virginia LID Competitions
In 2011, the James River Association, Friends of the Rappahannock and the Potomac Conservancy — nonprofit river conservation organizations that represent three of Virginia’s largest Bay tributaries — teamed up to host Virginia’s first LID competition.
The Virginia competition presented three design categories — green roadway, suburban mixed use and urban infill — and real world examples of sites in three Virginia localities.
There were 16 entries. A team of expert judges selected two in each category that met or exceeded the requirements to minimize runoff, maximize on-site stormwater management and provide other benefits. Final presentations took place before a panel of dignitaries that included state government department heads, local government officials and nonprofit stormwater managers. The winners were announced in early April 2012 at the closing ceremony of the 23rd annual Environment Virginia Symposium at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
Gordon, a site consulting firm from Chantilly, VA, won the green roadway category. It redesigned an Arlington county neighborhood street to reduce pollution by increasing tree canopy and on-site infiltration, and improve neighborhood aesthetics. Oomer Syed, one of the team leaders, said, “a lot of that design was based on balancing the loss of parking with stormwater management and aesthetic qualities of the neighborhood. My big takeaway was finding the balance.”
The winner of the urban infill category was the Williamsburg Environmental Group, of Williamsburg, VA. One of the team’s leaders, Alex Foraste, said that often a project’s capital costs, stormwater management performance and compliance with regulations are emphasized. The competition gave his team an opportunity to focus on the element of time.
“There’s such a focus on construction costs and this can drive decisions, but when people start looking at life cycle costs, including maintenance, this brings in the element of time, which [made us search for] cost savings.” Foraste said. “So we started looking at water use and how much water we could save with rainwater harvesting and quantified this over a couple of decades.” When it came to the final presentation, Foraste said, they saw a lot of heads nodding when they brought up long-term costs.
Adrienne Kotula, project manager for the James River Association, one of the event’s hosts, recently reflected on that experience. “I think the last competition definitely heightened awareness of LID and started more of a conversation with the design community about types of practices that can be used to design sites more in line with natural hydrologic function.”
But, she said, “I think we lost the local conversation by hosting a statewide competition.” She noted that none of the winning designs have been implemented.
The recently launched Richmond Smart Stormwater Design Competition focuses on one site — the Carillon at Byrd Park, a World War I memorial that is in the center of the park and beloved by many, including several civic groups. Kotula identified the site by consulting with Richmond’s public utilities and parks and recreation departments, and is involving neighborhood groups in the project.
Managers of the DC region’s stormwater and sewage system utility have high hopes for the Green Infrastructure Challenge.
The district must meet the mandates of a 2005 consent decree with the Department of Justice that requires the city and its utility, DC Water, to address the persistent sewage overflows by increasing capacity at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant and building a massive underground tunnel system to store the huge volumes of rainwater that rush from city rooftops and streets during heavy rains and cause the system to overflow.
The consent decree encourages green infrastructure or LID to manage stormwater — and DC Water hopes that parts of the tunnel system can be downsized or even eliminated if it can demonstrate that green practices reduce flows and treat pollution well enough to match or exceed the regulatory requirements.
Enter the Green Infrastructure Challenge, a competition with a couple of notable twists.
For one thing, it has high stakes: a total of $1.2 million dollars will be awarded to help cover the construction costs of the winning designs, which will be built as demonstration projects.
Also, the district’s rate-payers, by order of the decree, must be engaged in the process of evaluating these new technologies.
“The strength of the tunnel project is that you have a lot of certainty about the performance,” said George Hawkins, general manager of DC water. “Once you know the length and diameter, you know almost to the gallon how much flow you can capture that would otherwise go to the river.”
On the other hand, Hawkins said, “GI is a little more difficult to evaluate. Rather than being a centralized remedy, it is decentralized over many lots, which you have to maintain over time in a more aggressive manner. There are a lot more variables.”
The competition and subsequent demonstration projects, he said, are designed to “make sure that — whatever remedy we put in place [using] green infrastructure — we are on the cutting edge, that we are doing absolutely the latest and greatest of what is possible because it has to last for the next 30 to 40 years.”
It must not only last, but also work for the residents and DC Water. “We have very good performance numbers [for green infrastructure],” Hawkins said. “But we know less about the operational side — what permits do we need, what agencies have to be involved. How difficult is it to get into the city streets? What are the mechanics and logistics of doing this?”
Building and maintaining bioswales and rain gardens and other catchment systems would be required to replace capacity in the tunnel system — and Hawkins wants the winning designs from the competition to help his agency learn these lessons, on-the-ground, by building them in the congested urban environment.
The Chesapeake Stormwater Network is launching a slightly different kind of competition. “Our purpose,” said Tom Schueler, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Stormwater Network, “is to bring attention to things that are already in the ground so we can learn from the truly best practices.”
While many competitions offer real-life design problems, Schueler said they often don’t get implemented. “The wider purpose of the BUBBA is to show the doubters that you can have cost-effective practices that look nice, work well and are already out there.”
There is a lot of interest in this type of competition, Schueler said, noting that all of the design jurors recruited to judge the BUBBA accepted within a day. Recognizing that stormwater best management practice application is highly site-dependent, the BUBBA will present awards in these categories: homeowner, innovative, best combination of BMPs in a series, ultra-urban BMPs, best habitat creation by a BMP, and best stream restoration.
The 4,000-member network will select the “people’s choice award” through online voting. Winners will be announced at the Baywide Partners Stormwater Retreat in the spring. The submission process is online and relatively easy, and Schueler makes the process sound simple when he said, “For me, innovation looks simple and is cost-effective and attractive.”
There is general agreement that the private sector plays a pivotal role in advancing the science and technology of urban stormwater management and site design.
Design competitions, said Jon Capacasa, director of EPA Region III’s Water Protection Division, “are a great way to harness some very smart folks to accelerate the implementation of stormwater controls.” As one of the jurors of the recent Philadelphia competition, he called the final event, “Electrifying. Empowering.”
Though the sponsors and scope may be different in each competition, what brings teams to the table is the same: civic pride, the competitive urge, and the opportunity to gain professional visibility.
LID and green infrastructure provide the tools and technologies to bring the life back to neighborhoods and centers of health and community in a built environment using thoughtful design, flowing water, native plants and shade trees.
One reason these competitions generate so much enthusiasm is that the designs resonate with common human needs for comfort and safety in one’s surroundings.