Seems the older I get, the more comfortable I get with gray, but with water pipes, basins, tunnels, and treatment plants, the opposite needs to happen.

While some core features of public works will have to be gray and hard – concrete and steel, bricks and mortar – a growing movement is shifting the water management paradigm to green – rain gardens, green roofs, tree canopies, urban wetlands, bioswales and such – along a softer path.

Green infrastructure systems and practices use or mimic natural processes to infiltrate, evapotranspirate or reuse stormwater and runoff on the site where it is generated. These approaches keep rainwater out of the sewer system. In doing so, they help prevent overflows and  allow stormwater to be absorbed and cleaned by soil and vegetation before flowing into groundwater or surface water.

The benefits of green are becoming clearer as costs, carbon footprints and public amenities come into focus like never before. Sewer overflows, stormwater regulations and billion-dollar enforcement orders to fix aging systems all are conspiring to convince policy makers, community leaders and stakeholders to think outside the big box to save money and energy, improve environmental results and beautify neighborhoods.

Stormwater issues are particularly “hot” these days. Many water bodies are impaired by the urban and suburban slobber that follows rain and snow events. Controlling the polluted runoff that can pick up litter, chemicals, hydrocarbons, pathogens and soils on pavement, streets and lots can cost millions – or even billions – of dollars according to EPA estimates.

New water regulations affecting local development and growth are prompting many tough technical, legal, policy and political choices. Much of the drama is playing out on the national stage with EPA's Clean Water Act stormwater regulations that will be proposed by early-December of this year and finalized before December 2012. Art, skill, luck and good will are needed to find the right mix at the right level for success

Understandably, there's concern about potential costs and constraints imposed by strangers with big hammers. Home builders, property owners and policymakers are asking some legitimate questions about legal authority and fiscal austerity surrounding the potential EPA stormwater standards. But there also are great opportunities to drive green infrastructure locally and regionally with thoughtful, flexible criteria.

With that in mind, the Clean Water America Alliance teamed up with American Rivers to identify principles for successful green infrastructure strategies and stormwater regulations. You can read the entire statement at www.cwaa.us/pdfs/gistatement.pdf. In short: :

  • The widespread adoption of green infrastructure can: improve the health and livability of our communities; expand employment opportunities; reduce municipal expenses; and improve the safety, security and sustainability of our water resources and ecosystems.
  • The EPA's upcoming stormwater rule should include clear, achievable and flexible standards and provisions that encourage the adoption and use of green infrastructure practices – and help advance a broader green infrastructure strategy, combining regulatory and non-regulatory tools such as financial, technical and research-related assistance.

The Alliance also is releasing, on September 13, a first-ever national survey and report on obstacles and opportunities to these softer, greener approaches.

“Barriers and Gateways to Green Infrastructure,” made possible by a grant from the Turner Foundation, will document and discuss specific technical and physical, legal and regulatory, financial, and community and institutional barriers and how to overcome them through education, coordination, collaboration and innovation. Keep your eyes on this. It’s likely to prompt a lot of debate and, we hope, good work for green progress and clean water.

In addition, the Alliance is providing green infrastructure insight through our Urban Water Sustainability Council, chaired by Kevin Shafer of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Department. The Council is convening a first-class leadership conference in world water hub, Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 3-5. The conference will provide unique opportunities to share ideas about barriers and gateways, and to learn from multi-disciplinary teams from the cities of Austin, Cincinnati, Louisville, Seattle and Los Angeles (a leader in green infrastructure and a winner of the 2011 U.S. Water Prize awarded by the Alliance). Expect 200 people of all stripes and perspectives, from coast to coast, with public and private sector experience. Visit our website to learn more about the Milwaukee conference, the Urban Water Sustainability Council and the U.S. Water Prize.

Clean Water America Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, educational organization, is uniting people and policies to change the way we view, value and manage water and green infrastructure is a big part of it all. Join the Alliance, whether you're an individual, corporation or community and follow our work, www.cwaa.us, as we help shift paradigms to shape a more sustainable, healthy and hydrated future.