Changing the rules in the middle of the game: Philadelphia's green infrastructure

Aging US water infrastructure has meant more leaks, flooded basements, and massive sinkholes in cities across the US. Fixing the water and sewer systems in need of repair will take billions of dollars, and it's hard to find that kind of money in the budget these days.

Saqib Rahim reports for ClimateWire on Philadelphia's decision to use "green infrastructure" rather than building a larger pipe system to handle the water that's dumped on the city during severe storms. The combination of more intense storms and more paved area is a problem: Impervious surfaces like roads, sidewalks, and parking lots can't absorb rainfall, so it ends up in the city's stormwater collection system -- which, in many older cities, is combined with the sewage system. When these combined systems are overwhelmed by heavy rainfall, the result is often that a rainfall-and-sewage mixture gets discharged into a local waterway. (Read more about this problem here.) Rahim explains Philadelphia's solution to this problem:

Instead of building an even larger pipe system to address the issue, [Water Department Commissioner Howard] Neukrug pitched the most aggressive "green infrastructure" plan in the country. Through increased vegetation, rain barrels, sponge-like roads and other measures, the city would try to absorb more water where it fell. The ground would filter out pollutants, reduce strain on the pipelines and make the city a more attractive place.

Neukrug tells Rahim that the green infrastructure solution will cost Philadelphia $2 billion, compared to $8 billion to $10 billion for larger underground tunnels. But the part of the city's plan that's currently causing a controversy is what water customers will pay. They'll now be charged not just for the water they use, but for their contributions to stormwater problems -- that is, sites with a lot of impervious surfaces will pay more.

The average household will see an average bill rise from approximately $60 to around $63.50, Rahim reports. For some large businesses, though, costs could rise significantly over the next few years -- and 100 of these businesses have hired a lobbyist and met with the Water Department to oppose implementation of the new billing practices.

I can understand why these businesses are upset. When they invest and plan for their businesses' futures, they assume the rules will stay the same. Their extensive impervious surfaces are causing problems for public health, but they might not have realized that their decisions about what to pave were raising costs for the city's residents (and everyone else affected when its sewage ended up in local waterways).

Changing the rules isn't ideal, but it's the best solution if the current rules create incentives for behavior that harms public health. If this country had never changed the rules to make businesses start bearing more of the cost for problems they cause the general public (externalities, in economic language), we'd still have rivers so polluted that they catch fire. Governments can ease the pain by providing grants or low-interest loans to help businesses and individuals invest in greener setups -- and, Rahim reports, Philadelphia is offering loans to businesses that want to green their facilities. Increases in bills will also be capped at 10% or $100 per month.

Such an approach could also be used to address other public health issues like CO2 emissions -- but so far, opposition to a carbon tax has been stronger than support. In the meantime, I'll be watching Philadelphia's effort and hoping it succeeds with a green solution to water infrastructure challenges.

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Changing the rules isn't the problem in Philadelphia with the PWD, its making the deals without thinking about the consequences. The storm water plan was in place- It would cost the PWD $xxxxxx dollars (ask them and they cant give you a correct figure. But they made a "deal" with the high rises in Philadelphia to reduce(actually do away) the exorbitant (already in place for xx years)meter charges. Then that put them into a deficit. They added that deficit into what it costs for Storm Water. They need to come up with a better, fairer way to charge for the meters (pipe sizes) because any business in Philadelphia when they purchase or build a building they did due diligence and knew what the meter (or pipe) size they would need and the cost. That cost is built into their budgets yearly. That cost in most of the high rise buildings is passed on to their tenants. Who wins?? Its a 200 % win for the owners of the buildings. Who loses - The buildings with the largest footprints because they now have to absorb meter charges as well. I agree the meter charges for years have been over the top, but that is not the fault of the owners of the large lots, its the PWD, and again, they knew what those charges were going to be when the built / bought.

Thanks for the local perspective, Kim. That's an interesting idea about charging by pipe size -- I'd never heard that proposed, although here in DC the water agency is also moving toward charging by impervious area (though not as dramatic a shift as Philadelphia).

Before spending all this money, perhaps it's time to look at just how bad the current situation is? If it's like New York City, we're talking about the rivers getting raw sewage perhaps, at most, ten days/year. (Less in actual flow, but it takes a couple of days to disperse). Ask the taxpayers whether they believe it makes sense to spend the thousands of dollars per resident for this marginal and minimal improvement.
(With a population of 1.5 million, we're looking at a minimum of fifteen hundred dollars apiece, and given how accurate these projections tend to be, more likely five thousand. Two or three times that if you count by family)