30 September 2011

Smarter, Greener, Cheaper Infrastructure

A smarter approach to America's infrastructure crisis is brewing underneath Philadelphia, where an aging "combined sewer system" that collects wastewater and storm water in the same pipes dumps raw sewage into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers during heavy rains. Engineers have proposed a $9 billion storage tunnel under the Delaware to stop overflows and comply with EPA regulations. But Mayor Michael Nutter doesn't have $9 billion, and if he did, he wouldn't want to bury it 150 ft. underground.
Instead, the city has launched a remarkably aggressive campaign to keep storm water out of its sewers in the first place with the help of rain barrels and rain gardens, vegetated green roofs and permeable green roads, new trees and new parks. A green road looks like any other road, but rain that falls on it slowly percolates underground instead of zipping into a storm drain. The eventual goal is to capture runoff from one-third of the city's impervious surfaces and make 15 sq. mi. of man-made, urban jungle function more like a natural forest.
Nutter, who has pledged to turn Philadelphia into the greenest city in America, has a nice riff about treating water as a resource instead of a waste product and how it's fun to convert parking lots into parks. But he isn't some tie-dyed hippie tree hugger. He wouldn't be so excited about green infrastructure if he didn't think it could help him comply with the Clean Water Act for about $7 billion less than a giant tunnel would cost.
"It's revolutionary, but it's really a no-brainer," Nutter says. "We help the environment, and we don't have to waste all that money tearing up the city."
What Nutter and his team are doing with porous basketball courts and man-made wetlands is a model - not just for wastewater projects, which the EPA expects to cost the U.S. nearly $400 billion by 2030, but also for the reconstruction of a cash-strapped country.

~Michael Grunwald, Time.com

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