Building the Blue Economy

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, May 1st, 2014


Opportunities for Community-Based Organizations in Stormwater Management

Executive Summary

PUSH Blue crew working on green infrastructure in Buffalo’s west sideThe United States has a serious problem with combined sewer overflows. In responding to this environmental and public health menace, many regions are using innovative “green infrastructure” or “blue economy” approaches in addition to traditional “gray infrastructure” such as pipes and reservoirs. These new methods offer many environmental benefits and cost efficiencies and can be a potent source of jobs – including entry level jobs.

This report outlines ways for community-based organizations to seize these opportunities, both by advocating for green infrastructure and by developing social enterprises that do stormwater management work at a neighborhood level. It is designed for non-profit groups, policy makers, and funders interested in the intersection of sustainability, neighborhood redevelopment, and job creation and the possibility of a triple win in all three areas.

Introduction: Raw Sewage in our Water

Many people are surprised – and disgusted – to learn that their city discharges large amounts of raw sewage into local lakes and rivers whenever it rains more than a trace amount. But that is exactly what happens in many cities; in Buffalo, for example, it happens over 50 times each year. In fact, sewer overflows contaminate the nation’s waters with some 860 billion gallons of sewage per year – enough to cover the state of Pennsylvania with an inch of sewage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that up to 3.5 million people get sick every year from swimming in waters contaminated by sewer overflows.

Older cities such as Buffalo tend to have combined sewer systems, in which the sanitary sewage flows into the same pipes as the stormwater that enters from streets, parking lots, and the gutters and downspouts of buildings. The pipes and tunnels lead to sewage treatment plants. On dry days, all of the sanitary sewage can be treated at the plants. On wet days, however, the combination of the sanitary sewage and stormwater is too much for the treatment plant to handle, and so the combined sewage is discharged directly into local rivers and lakes through combined sewer outflows. In Buffalo, for example, the sewage plant can fully treat up to 300 million gallons per day (MGD) and partially treat up to 600 MGD. That works fine on dry days, with an average sanitary sewage flow of 150 MGD. But  an inch of rain or melting snow produces an additional 590.5 MGD, resulting in massive sewage discharges.

Solving the problem of sewer overflows is one of the great environmental challenges of our era. In the nation, 772 municipalities containing some 40 million people have combined sewer systems, and they discharge raw sewage about 43,000 times per year. The sewer discharges are illegal under the federal Clean Water Act and many state laws, and the EPA and state environmental departments have been steadily moving to bring sewer authorities around the nation into compliance. Sewer authorities can address the problem in three main ways. First, they can separate out the sewer systems. The main drawback of this approach is that it allows the stormwater to enter waterways untreated, and stormwater picks up many pollutants as it flows through fields, lawns, streets, and highways. Second, they can build large reservoirs to hold the combined sewage in reserve until the sewage treatment plant can process it. This approach is very expensive, and it does not address the damage that stormwater does before entering sewage systems through erosion, flooding, and surface water contamination.

The third solution is green infrastructure, which keeps stormwater out of the sewer system in the first place through techniques such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, rain barrels, green roofs, bioswales, and increased plantings. Used correctly, green infrastructure can save taxpayer money and yet create more jobs than traditional “gray” infrastructure techniques. New York City estimates that its green infrastructure plan will reduce sewer overflows by 2 billion gallons over 20 years while costing $1.5 billion less than a purely “grey infrastructure” strategy.v Philadelphia estimates that its investment of $1.6 billion in improving its water quality will lead to 15,266 direct green collar Green infrastructure can also offer a panoply of co-benefits to the environment and the community – improving air quality, beautifying neighborhoods, reducing hot summer temperatures, conserving water, and more.

The rapid emergence of green infrastructure as a preferred solution to sewer overflow offers a window of opportunity to community development corporations, job training programs,  and other non-profit groups working to better their communities. For many place-based organizations working in neighborhoods where employment and capital are scarce and environmental hazards are plentiful, the ideal initiative is a social enterprise that employs local residents to make their communities healthier and more prosperous. Green infrastructure offers one of the most promising arenas to achieve this kind of double victory. This report, using Buffalo as its primary case study, explores some of the challenges and winning strategies involved in advocating for and implementing green infrastructure solutions at a neighborhood level.

Download full version (PDF): Building the Blue Economy

About PUSH Buffalo
People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) is a local membership-based community organization fighting to make affordable housing a reality on Buffalo’s West Side. PUSH was founded by Aaron Bartley and Eric Walker in 2005.

About the Partnership for the Public Good
The Partnership for the Public Good provides research and advocacy support to a broad array of partners that share a community-oriented vision of a revitalized Buffalo-Niagara. We help community groups have a stronger and better informed voice in public policy debates.  We help Buffalo-Niagara to build on assets such as diversity, historic neighborhoods, and natural resources, make progress on problems such as poverty, inequality, and pollution, and bring greater accountability and democracy to local government.

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