In Puget Sound, one of America’s great estuaries, killer whales, seals, and schools of salmon swim not far from more than 3 million people who live in the Seattle region. The presence of such impressive marine life, however, belies the fact that the sound is seriously polluted.
When it rains, storm water washes into the same system of underground pipes that carries the region’s sewage, and 1 billion gallons a year overflow into the sound when area sewer systems contain more water than can be treated. In addition, motor oil, lawn chemicals, PCBs, heavy metals, pet waste, and many other substances run unabated into the sound, both through the storm water pipes and from roads and other shoreline structures. “The biggest threat to Puget Sound is non-point sources [of pollution],” says Nancy Ahern, Seattle Public Utilities deputy director.
Blowhole samples taken from killer whales have revealed fungi, viruses and bacteria living in their respiratory tracts, some of them antibiotic-resistant and once found only on land. Health officials often have to shut down oyster beds because of fecal contamination. Salmon in streams are killed by torrents of dirty storm water.
To lessen this deluge of diffuse pollution — a problem faced by many regions worldwide — Seattle is looking not at new and expensive sewage treatment infrastructure. Instead it is embracing an innovative solution to storm water runoff called green infrastructure, which experts increasingly say is not only the most cost-effective way to deal with such a large-scale problem, but also offers a range of other benefits. A growing number of places, from New York City to Sweden, are investing in everything from rooftop gardens to pollution-filtering assemblages of trees to reduce tainted runoff.
Gray infrastructure is the system of pipes and ditches that channel storm water. Green infrastructure is the harnessing of the natural processes of trees and other vegetation — so-called ecosystem services — to carry out the functions of the built systems. Green infrastructure often intercepts the water before it can run into streets and become polluted and stores the water for gradual release through percolation or evapotranspiration. Trees also clean dirty water through natural filtering functions.
Advocates say green infrastructure isn’t just about being green — it makes financial sense, as well. Its cost-effectiveness depends on how benefits are assigned and valued, and over how long a time scale, but green has been shown to be cheaper than gray.
A 2012 study by American Rivers, ECONorthwest, and other groups examined 479 projects around the country. About a quarter of the projects were more expensive, they concluded, and 31 percent cost the same; more than 44 percent brought the costs down, in some cases substantially. New York City, for example, expects to save $1.5 billion over the next 20 years by using green infrastructure.
The concept of green infrastructure is hardly new. New York City has long preserved watersheds in the Catskills Mountains and Hudson Valley for the city’s drinking water supplies. Since the 1990s, in order to comply with federal regulations, New York City has committed $1.5 billion dollars for protection of the forests that blanket much of the Catskills rather than build and operate a water filtration and purification plant costing $10 billion.
“We’re at a tipping point,” says Katherine Baer of American Rivers, which is working with communities to implement green infrastructure. “We’re going to see a lot more of these practices that protect, restore or replicate natural functions, as cities grapple not only with water quality, but with livability and climate adaptation.”