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Cities move from grey to green systems

GCBL staff  |  12/06/07 @ 4:50pm

Cities like Cleveland looking for more sustainable-and cheaper- solutions to handling storm water are slowly replacing big, expensive grey with lots of smaller green infrastructure. Green infrastructure refers to best management practices for storm water, such as rain gardens, vegetated swales, permeable pavements, rain barrels, and green roofs that mimic the natural capacity of the landscape to absorb precipitation where it falls. Its benefits include allowing storm water to infiltrate into soil instead of rushing into sewers and streams with a toxic brew of oils or heavy metals.

This past July, Cleveland hosted the National Association of Clean Water Agencies conference where water department directors from Chicago, Portland, Milwaukee and Philly explained how storm water agencies and green infrastructure work. They reported positive results, but cautioned that the organizations that have lead the way-storm water agencies-don't form overnight. Most of the time cities have to reverse decades-old patterns that have them spending billions of dollars on ever larger pipes and systems, which still fail to handle all the run off from ever increasing paved surfaces. Streams were still being blown out or polluted, and streets flooded during high rains.

Some municipal governments have unpaved the way with city ordinances, which often needed updating in order to get residents working with them on green infrastructure. In most cities, ordinances prevented citizens from simply disconnecting their downspouts to capture the water in a rain barrel, or feed it into a rain garden on their property. Once considered controversial-inviting your resident stakeholders to take an active role in slowing storm water and reducing overall water usage-now it's paying dividends.

Cleveland officials are taking note, and are looking to add a layer of green infrastructure to their existing efforts. In October, Cleveland Office of Building and Housing-with assistance from the Office of Sustainability Director Andrew Watterson and Fran DiDonato, a project manager working on sustainable policies-proposed updating the city's ordinances to allow private property owners to disconnect downspouts from the sewer and attach them to approved receptacles on their property (guidelines will be written that include rain barrels and rain gardens). Watterson's office also proposes allowing permeable pavement to be used on private property. Both rule changes have been introduced in Cleveland City Council which will vote on the matter after committee hearing and Mayor Jackson's approval, DiDonato says.

"This will let the city get out of the way so that home and property owners can manage their own storm water," DiDonato says. "It also lets us promote and understand how to really do this."

The city plans to offer workshops in the spring on how to properly disconnect downspouts and, possibly, combine a workshop on how to make a rain barrel. Besides the written guidelines, DiDonato says her department will also assist Building and Housing in setting up a register for those installing rain barrel and rain garden.

Permeable pavement will not impact the city's paving projects, DiDonato says, but the Sustainability Office is looking into the cost and benefits of permeable pavement for the city. For the present, it will make it easier for LEED projects such as Flats East Bank, for example, to include porous concrete since variances will no longer be required.

How much impact, how much storm water percolates through, and what's the cost-benefit Clevelanders can expect from setting up rain barrels, rain gardens or permeable pavement? Using Chicago nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology's online Green Values Storm Water Calculator we can estimate if 2,000 property owners on quarter-acre lots built rain gardens, it would reduce their water discharge by 24 percent per lot and provide $100 in benefits. The cost to build and maintain the rain garden is estimated at about $4.25 per square foot, and that's why most regional storm water agencies help property owners offset those costs by collecting taxes based on the amount of impervious surface is on a property. Similarly, if porous pavement is used, it is estimated to reduce annual water runoff by 25% per lot, at a premium of $1,126 over conventional pavement.

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