A Maryland county’s unusual public-private partnership, which aims to slash the steep cost of reducing stormwater pollution, is off to a slow start but picking up speed as the first year of a possible decade of work ends.

Prince George’s County and its partner, Corvias Solutions, hope to retrofit 15,000 acres’ worth of pavement and buildings in the largely suburban DC community, installing rain gardens, vegetated roofs and other water-absorbing landscape features to capture runoff and help meet the county’s obligations to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Corvias has been engaged in infrastructure-related public-private partnerships for years with the Department of Defense, building military housing. That work, at bases in 10 states, includes installing and maintaining green infrastructure, company spokeswoman Cindy Willhite said. The partnership with Prince George’s County is the company’s first to be focused on stormwater.

The second year of a three-year contract calls for 2,000 acres’ worth of retrofits. A second contract requires Corvias to maintain the stormwater controls for 30 years. The contracts can be renewed.

Stormwater runoff is a significant source of Chesapeake Bay pollution, and the only one that’s growing, according to the Bay Program. It’s responsible for 16 percent each of nitrogen and phosphorus and 25 percent of sediment fouling the Bay’s water.

For Prince George’s, with much of its land inside the Capital Beltway developed before stormwater pollution was deemed a problem, the costs of retrofitting existing storm drains can be daunting — even overwhelming.

Reducing nutrient and sediment pollution to meet mandates imposed by Maryland’s Bay watershed implementation plan could cost the county more than $2 billion by 2025 if it relied on conventional methods for upgrading its stormwater system, said Adam Ortiz, director of the county Department of the Environment.

By teaming up with the Rhode Island-based company and focusing more on “green infrastructure” than on replacing and expanding existing concrete structures, the county hopes to save its taxpayers a bundle — though it still promises to be a very expensive undertaking.

Faced with a 2025 deadline to complete needed pollution reduction measures, the partners hope to finish retrofitting the 15,000 acres of impervious surface for about $1 billion. That’s half of what the county figured it would cost if it were to do it on its own.

Some additional stormwater upgrades — and extra expense — will still be necessary, Ortiz said, but even so the net savings will be large. The pavement retrofits, which include planting trees and installing bioswales, will allow rain to filter into the ground and reduce the volume and speed of precipitation flowing into the storm drain system, he said.

“We’re driving toward a 30–40 percent more efficient and cost-effective approach, compared with conventional stormwater control upgrades,” said Neil Weinstein, a consultant on the project. The executive director of the Low Impact Development Center, of Beltsville, MD, added that using green retrofits and having a private partner manage installation and maintenance not only drives the total cost down, it also increases the value and economic return to the county by promoting long-term employment gains and environmentally sustainable economic development.

Other jurisdictions in Maryland are handling their stormwater obligations the usual way, by contracting out individual projects or functions. Prince George’s has turned over to Corvais the task of scheduling and coordinating all of the retrofit projects.

The public-private teamwork could be a game-changer, according to Dan Nees, director of the University of Maryland’s Environmental Finance Center, in making stormwater control more affordable for urban and suburban localities in the Chesapeake watershed and beyond.

But Nees cautioned that the Prince George’s partnership is still so new it’s too early to know if it will work.

A year into the arrangement, 1.9 acres  have been fully retrofitted, according to Peter Littleton, Corvias operations manager in Prince George’s. “We’ve just been ramping up our design efforts for a strong construction season as the weather breaks.”

More than 400 installations that will retrofit 1,450 acres are in various stages of planning, permitting and design, Littleton said, including 140 acres he expects to be completed in the next 90 days.

Little or none of the work apparently will include replacing standard asphalt and concrete with pervious pavement, which soaks up rainfall. Though the press release announcing the public-private partnership listed pervious pavement as one of the runoff control measures that would be employed, Littleton said it’s expensive to install and maintain. It must be periodically vacuumed to remove dirt, or the pores in the pavement intended to let water soak through will clog up with sediment, he explained.

In Prince George’s County, rainfall runs off into three rivers: the Patuxent, Potomac and Anacostia. Anacostia Watershed Society president James Foster said he likes what he’s seen of the partnership’s work so far.

“It’s too early to say it’s the best thing since sliced bread,” Foster said. But he suggested that the arrangement has a much better chance of succeeding than the county attempting to do it alone.

“It frees up the effort from the traditional bureaucracy in Prince George’s County,” Foster said.

He said that Prince George’s has installed numerous stormwater ponds and rain gardens between 1990 and 2010, but said the county failed to maintain them. Foster said many of the installations have deteriorated to the point of uselessness.

“Now I think we have our eye have on the ball,” Foster said.

At the Prince George’s County group of the Sierra Club, Cary Coppock said that while the partnership seems promising, he thinks it is focused on relatively inexpensive and easy measures, which he called “low-hanging fruit.”

Coppock gave as an example retrofits being done to curtail silt filling in Greenbelt Lake. Two creeks feed the 23-acre water body.

Corvias installed silt catchments in the creeks just before they empty into the lake. Silt trapped by the catchments must be cleaned out periodically.

The company expects to receive credit under its contract for retrofitting 168 acres. The credit is based on the size of subwatershed that will be treated by the catchments, Littleton said.

A better solution, Coppock contended, would have been to install green infrastructure on the land that drains into the creeks to keep silt from being washed into the water in the first place.

Tim Toohey, senior Corvias vice president for operations, defended the lake retrofit choice. He said the catchments are much cheaper to install and easier to maintain, providing a financial benefit to county taxpayers. He noted that many contractors are still relatively unfamiliar with green infrastructure, so it made sense to break them in with such jobs.

But Toohey explained that there’s another factor as well: Corvias could lose all profits if it does not meet the retrofit goals within budget.

Foster said the company’s retrofit choice at Greenbelt Lake is less than ideal. But he said the retrofit is the best choice given the partnership’s resources.

Corvias is being paid an average of about $40,000 per acre retrofitted, Foster said. The Anacostia Watershed Society, in comparison, just completed a green infrastructure project in Hyattsville, a small city in the county, at a cost of $250,000 per acre. 

“That’s a Cadillac retrofit,” Foster said of the Hyattsville project.

The Prince George’s stormwater project’s goals include:

  • Reducing the amount of new concrete infrastructure that the county must install to reduce nutrient and sediment loading to the watershed;
  • Achieving the necessary pollution reductions at a much lower net cost;
  • Greening neighborhoods, stimulating economic development and increasing residents’ quality of life and property values; and
  • Hiring thousands of local workers as well as county contractors and design engineers to build and maintain the green infrastructure.

Ortiz said the project is creating short– and long-term jobs that can be done without extensive education. In addition, Corvias must maintain a mentoring program to teach workers the skills needed for higher-paying jobs.

A large percentage of the contractors must be from the county, where a majority of its 904,000 residents are African Americans.

The company’s performance standards include having at least 30 percent of its contractors be small-business, minority– or women-owned county businesses in year one. The percentage increases to 40 percent by year three.

In addition, the standards require that at least 15 percent of the man-hours worked in year one go to county residents, increasing to 51 percent by the third year, Littleton said.

The plan got a thumbs up from barber Tony Maccarony when asked about it while he walked to his car at a county service center. Maccarony praised the minority contracting and local hiring requirements in the plan. Then, looking at two large rain gardens installed in the parking lot to capture runoff, he added that he thought green infrastructure would improve the environment — and county streetscapes.

“This is great idea. It’s a win-win all around,” he said

Ortiz and Toohey, who sit on the project’s supervisory board, said their partnership can work with the speed and efficiency that only a private enterprise can deliver.

Done conventionally, the county would have to do project-by-project feasibility studies, site planning and permitting, then put individual projects out for bid on a site-by-site basis. That can easily take most of a year for each project, Ortiz said.

Under the county-Corvias agreement, retrofits that do not involve wetlands or navigable waterways are pre-approved, said Littleton, the company’s operations manager in the county. The others must undergo lengthy regulatory review by the Maryland Department of the Environment, but Littleton said the partnership is seeking a streamlined permitting process from the state.

Once a retrofit site is approved by the partnership — and where necessary, an MDE permit obtained — Corvias will hire engineers who provide detailed plans that are to be built within a set budget. The company then hires contractors to do the work, Toohey said. The engineer gets the surplus if the retrofit comes in under budget, he added, but gets nothing if costs run over.

Most of the work in the first year has been done on public property but retrofits are also being done at several churches, Ortiz said.

Corvias would like to install green infrastructure on commercial properties, but Toohey said that the partnership cannot compel landowners to participate. The only incentive landowners have now for giving up parking spaces, for instance, would be to lower what they owe the county in mandatory stormwater management fees. But Toohey said the fees the county charges now aren’t high enough to encourage such trade-offs.

Stormwater fees have been controversial across Maryland, and Prince George’s would likely face resistance if it tried to raise them. Briefly required of all of the state’s largest jurisdictions counties, the fees were derided as “rain taxes” by critics, and Larry Hogan pledged to repeal the mandate when he ran for governor and won the 2014 election. The General Assembly obliged last year.

Looking for other funding streams, the county has asked the MDE for permission to tap the Clean Water State Revolving Fund for the retrofit work. The department is considering the request and expects to make a determination in June, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said.

Meanwhile, Corvias is looking for opportunities to expand its public-private stormwater retrofit business. Toohey said he’s discussing public-private partnerships with several other Maryland counties as well a few counties in Virginia.