Cities in PA have a sewerage problem. Green infrastructure can help, but comes with risks.
Rafiyqa Muhammad opened the door to a garden in Harrisburg’s Summit Terrace neighborhood on a hot July morning. It had finally stopped raining and the trees were buzzing with the chatter of birds and insects.
“We need the rain, but of course when the rain hits our streets and sidewalks and everything, it turns into something totally different,” Muhammad said. “I’ll use the word toxic.”
Rain gardens like this one, a flower-lined lot the size of four townhouses on the corner of Bailey and Summit Streets, help prevent that water from flowing directly into the storm sewers.
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“Trees certainly hold a lot of water, some vegetation holds water,” she said. “Something is holding it back and then dispersing it slowly, little by little, instead of all at once.”
Muhammad, who has lived in Harrisburg his entire life and sits on the city and state environmental advisory boards, is also a community ambassador to the city’s water utility. She partnered with Capital Region Water and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who hired her to help create two rain gardens in the neighborhood a few years ago.
Echinacea and trees grow in the rain garden at the corner of Bailey and North 13th streets in Summit Terrace. “They were little babies when we were doing this,” said Rafiyqa Muhammad, who helped create the garden. “Everything has grown. Photo: Madison Goldberg / StateImpact Pennsylvania
According to an information panel in the David Samuel Wise, Sr., Memorial Rain Garden, the flowers help attract bees and other pollinators. Photo: Madison Goldberg / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Harrisburg – along with other cities in Pennsylvania, including Lancaster, Scranton and Pittsburgh – are bound by federal consent orders to address growing stormwater management issues.
Rain gardens are part of the nature-based strategies known as ‘green infrastructure’ that these cities are deploying as they grapple with the combined effects of outdated sewage systems and more severe storms. fueled by climate change.
These projects can have real benefits, Muhammad said. But she believes that equitable solutions must take into account much more than precipitation.
Muhammad, along with researchers working on stormwater issues, said that while planners take a broad perspective – taking into account issues such as housing disparities – green infrastructure holds promise for residents who face the greatest environmental loads.
However, viewing these projects as little more than engineering problems might actually make these inequalities worse.
“When I hear ‘stormwater management’ I look at it holistically,” Muhammad said. “Everything is interconnected.
A tense system
Harrisburg, like many towns in the Northeast, relies heavily on what is called a “combined sewer system”: sewage – whether showering, flushing or flushing the toilet. dishes – pass through the same pipes as rainwater. .
The system is supposed to transport all this water to a treatment plant before discharging it into the Susquehanna River. But strong storms can bring in more water than the system can handle; in these cases, whatever is in the pipes – untreated sewage mixed with polluted storm water – overflows into Susquehanna and Paxton creeks.
In addition, the latest version of the State Department of Environmental Protection Climate impact assessment predicts Pennsylvania will experience more frequent and intense storms as the planet continues to warm, putting additional strain on an already stressed sewage system.
The problem is not minor: according to one CRW Report, the Harrisburg system has sent an average of about 900 million gallons of untreated water to area waterways annually over the past five years.
Sampling by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and the Environmental Integrity Project suggests that the levels of E. coli bacteria in the river can be dangerously high. Recently groups sued against the public service, citing inaction on the problem of combined sewers.
Overflow points can’t just be plugged, said Jess Rosentel, CRW’s wastewater operations manager. During heavy rains, they can act as safety valves, preventing excess water from backing up streets and homes. But even that doesn’t always work.
“We can have flash flooding quickly in Harrisburg,” Muhammad said. It happens quite often that she begins to expect stormwater to accumulate in certain areas. “Cameron Street is definitely a flooded area no matter what,” she said.
A versatile solution
CRW plan to tackle violations, which is under review by the EPA, is spending some spending on green infrastructure: facilities like rain gardens, porous pavements, and planted roofs.
According to the utility, these strategies are more cost effective than new “gray infrastructure” like storage tanks and pipes.
Brian Humphrey, who has lived in Summit Terrace since birth and is also an ambassador for the CRW community, said rain gardens are making a difference. “They help a lot,” he said. “You no longer see the flooded area as before. “
In Lancaster, where the combined sewer system drains into the Conestoga River, the city government has funded nearly 60 green infrastructure projects in recent years.
The combination of stormwater management strategies Lancaster will use is not yet final, but the most recent report on green infrastructure points out that projects can have other benefits, including improving air quality and increasing access to green spaces.
“It’s not just about solving the stormwater issues themselves,” said Stephen Campbell, Lancaster’s director of public works. “It becomes a multi-faceted project, rather than just a green infrastructure project.”
Winnie Okello, who goes by Winnie O., is a professional civil engineer who co-founded the Community Task Force for Harrisburg’s Next Global Plan. She said that true cost-benefit analysis of green infrastructure requires planners to think about value in new ways.
“It is sometimes difficult to quantify,” she said.
For example, researchers have found connections between green spaces and improving mental health, although they are still investigating the reasons for this relationship.
“For some people, the grass is the grass is the grass,” said Winnie O. For her, it is clear that infrastructure planning must take into account more than the price.
Given the additional benefits of green infrastructure, the EPA has underline that it has the potential to address environmental inequalities.
Due to racist zoning policies and government sanctioned redlining, for example, many people of color live in zones with less refreshing green space and more intense heat waves.
Fushcia Hoover, who studied green infrastructure at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and will continue her work at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said these considerations are critical. But she also warned that there is more to the story when it comes to housing policy: historical and current segregation of housing means these projects could also pose risks to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
For example, Hoover said, neighborhoods that have experienced this type of codified divestment might be vulnerable to what’s known as “green gentrification.”
Urban studies researchers are still analyzing this phenomenon, she said. Corn research suggests that green infrastructure projects can be associated with an increase in property values, leaving some residents unable to afford housing.
“Then we’re just replicating the same process of uneven investment in our communities of color,” Hoover said.
One way to fight this, Hoover and other researchers suggest, is to combine green infrastructure projects with policies such as rent control, which aim to prevent gentrification.
Kate Austin, who works at the Lancaster Stormwater Management Office, said residents have raised concerns about green gentrification. She acknowledged that measures such as rent control could be at the center of the overall plan the city is currently working on.
“It’s something that we want to stay very connected to as we move forward,” she said.
Ultimately, Hoover said, the communities themselves should decide what types of stormwater infrastructure they want in their neighborhoods.
“Often green infrastructure is leased because it is a cheaper and more affordable tool,” she said. But, she thinks, municipal authorities have to ask themselves: “Are we going with this because this is actually what the communities need and what the communities want, or are we going with green infrastructure because that it’s just the cheapest thing? “
In Summit Terrace, Muhammad said, the community held meetings with CRW before the rain gardens were planted, so residents could participate in the planning process.
She said it was a step in the right direction.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “We have a lot more areas where we can have an impact. “
Winnie O. believes this will mean making collaboration between planners and residents the norm for infrastructure projects.
“People want green infrastructure, people want parks, people want recreation spaces, people want healthy environments. But what they also want is access, ”she said. “Who is present at these decision tables? This is really what it is.
This story is produced in partnership with State Impact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the Commonwealth’s energy economy.