The Growing Sustainable Water Infrastructure Movement

In the wake of new regulatory requirements and compromised infrastructure, utilities are emerging at the forefront of community initiatives and revitalization efforts with an all-encompassing solution: sustainable infrastructure. 

Sustainable infrastructure is gaining powerful steam, particularly with water, wastewater and stormwater utilities. Rather than solely turning to traditional solutions — bigger tunnels, larger pipes, more treatment plants — utilities are taking that capital investment to the communities they serve. 

This green movement creates additional benefits for a similar cost, complying with federal regulations and revitalizing neighborhoods and workforce development. For water utilities, that means using bioretention/bioswales — landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water — pervious concrete and asphalt; vegetation; soils; rain gardens; parks; wetlands; and other innovative, natural practices to effectively capture rainwater and keep it out of the sewer system while beautifying the community. 

“Moving toward sustainable solutions means long-term economic benefit for utilities and community and environmental benefits for neighborhoods,” says Andy Sauer, PE, a project manager in the Water Group at Burns & McDonnell. Sauer also currently serves on the national Water Environment Federation (WEF) Community of Practice on Sustainability. “Citizens and ratepayers want to see where their money is going. Showing a visible benefit to the community is a major driver for green infrastructure programs across the country.”

While sustainable solutions might win favor with the communities they serve, utilities still could struggle to implement them under the traditional expectations of regulatory agencies. While regulatory
bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) support and endorse sustainable infrastructure, the expectations to deliver and comply with regulatory mandates often are still rooted in traditional solutions. 

Despite the potential struggles, utilities in two different communities have found success incorporating sustainable solutions in their ongoing infrastructure updates. 

Planting the Seed of Innovation 

Backed by a community grassroots effort for sustainable infrastructure, the city of Kansas City, Missouri, began a $4.5 billion Overflow Control Program (OCP) in 2011. The largest capital program in Kansas City, the OCP will improve water quality and begin to rehabilitate the century-old infrastructure systems throughout the city’s combined and separate sanitary sewer systems over a 25-year time period.

To meet the immediate and long-term infrastructure challenges while maximizing the return on the ratepayers’ investment, the utility partnered with city officials and stakeholders to include defined green infrastructure projects in the federal consent decree — the first ever to do so.

One of the very first projects constructed under the OCP was the Middle Blue River Green Infrastructure Pilot Project. Completed in 2012, the pilot project tested a wide range of solutions and streetscape improvements throughout 100 acres of an urban neighborhood, installing green infrastructure in residential areas and along a commercial corridor. 

Residents from the neighborhood collaborated with design and construction professionals, city representatives and local utility companies to maximize the investment and overall benefits to the community. The project included green infrastructure enhancements, sewer system rehabilitation and street improvements. These upgrades not only improve water quality but also enhance the natural beauty of the street right-of-way and encourage private reinvestments in the neighborhood. 

The city has since gone a step further, installing sustainable infrastructure within the pilot project’s adjoining 644-acre watershed. The design incorporates underutilized parks, boulevards and vacant properties for a centralized community benefit. 

Less than 10 years into the 25-year plan, the community support and industry accolades have continued to grow. In September 2016, the project received the highest sustainability award from the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure, a platinum Envision™ Award. Envision is a national sustainability certification program that recognizes public infrastructure projects that meet a higher level of sustainability than traditional projects.

“The Envision certification process provides a standard that Kansas City is using and embracing to create truly more sustainable projects,” Sauer says. Kansas City is committed to developing more sustainable solutions and has established other green projects throughout other areas of the city to meet the requirements of the OCP. This project spotlights the benefits that green infrastructure offers beyond just reducing combined sewer overflows (CSO) and has resulted in citywide collaboration for additional improvements for the city. 

Nurturing Community-Minded Solutions

The city of Omaha, Nebraska, has begun to welcome the sustainable infrastructure movement over the past four years. Underneath the umbrella of an overarching CSO plan, several projects have incorporated sustainable infrastructure elements. 

“We look for sustainable solutions right from the beginning when responding to the request for proposal,” says Rick Besancon, PE, a project manager in the Water Group at Burns & McDonnell. “It starts that early in the process. We look at areas where sustainable infrastructure will result in a cost savings to the city.”

Burns & McDonnell was awarded three sewer separation projects across the city for which it proposed a sustainable infrastructure design: Country Club, Gilmore Avenue and Forest Lawn. 

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” Besancon says. “Some projects, like Gilmore Avenue and Forest Lawn specifically, have a great deal of opportunity for sustainable infrastructure.” 

Both located in urban environments, the Gilmore Avenue and Forest Lawn areas provided tremendous opportunities for revitalization through green infrastructure methods. The Gilmore Avenue project will reimagine the use of an empty lot that is frequently a site for illegal dumping. Once an unused eyesore, the lot will be transformed into a detention basin and constructed wetland, reducing flows to the downstream storm sewer system, saving money and beautifying the area. 

The Forest Lawn project is tackling an abandoned former Housing and Urban Development public housing site. Also an unused site providing no benefit to the community around it, the project will convert the location into a 5-acre wetland. While effectively reducing flow downstream and saving the city approximately 10 percent to 12 percent on the total project cost, the use of green infrastructure in this area also will boost the visual aesthetic in the neighborhood. 

As the projects spanning central, south and north Omaha continue to take shape, the once-skeptical community is getting on board. “It has been very interesting to see businesses in the community respond to the sustainable trend in Omaha,” Besancon says. 

Filtering Sustainability Throughout Communities

Outside of the CSO program, Burns & McDonnell has been provided a unique opportunity: to develop sustainable infrastructure at an elementary school. Hired to resolve drainage issues on one side of the school building, the team also is incorporating the design as a learning environment for the students. The team disconnected a downspout that was draining into the city’s combined sewer system and redirected it to a newly constructed rain storage silo. As part of an outdoor classroom, the stored water can be used for demonstration projects to illustrate how sustainable infrastructure operates.

“It provides the best of both worlds,” Besancon says. “People want to see how sustainable infrastructure works without actually having to be in the rain. This allows the opportunity for demonstrations so the students and the community can learn how it works and why it’s important.”

That education is essential as the drive for sustainable infrastructure solutions continues to top traditional methods. As Kansas City and Omaha have shown, utilities facing mandatory updates can transform how they view the potential long-term economic, community and environmental benefits of sustainable infrastructure. 

“We’re in the middle of a huge paradigm shift,” Sauer says. “Most of the infrastructure in place is reaching the end of its design life, and no one has been planning for it. There’s a smarter way to manage stormwater than just putting it in a pipe. People are starting to see rainwater as a resource, not a waste. It provides value being reused on-site to maintain a vegetative area rather than just pavement. And that’s a long-term, sustainable solution.” 

Green infrastructure has proved to be a solution that moves beyond regulatory compliance to promote a healthier, more sustainable future. For communities ready to mix gray and green solutions, the time has never been better.

Schenley Park Green Infrastructure Plan

In 2015, the city of Pittsburgh — including city board members and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority — visited Kansas City, Missouri, to see the city’s green infrastructure solutions in person.

“Sustainable solutions are so new in this arena, a lot of people want to see what it looks like,” Andy Sauer says. “Cities are reaching out to each other, and that collaboration and sharing of information is vital.”

Partnering together, the team of Burns & McDonnell and Phronesis, a Kansas City-based urban planning and landscape architecture firm specializing in sustainable infrastructure, is designing Pittsburgh’s first large green infrastructure project. Taking lessons learned and proven solutions from other cities, including Kansas City’s sustainable infrastructure project, Burns & McDonnell and Phronesis are addressing drainage solutions for Panther Hollow Lake. The lake is located in the heart of historical Schenley Park, a 300-acre park near downtown Pittsburgh. Lake water was entering the combined sewer overflow, resulting in millions of gallons of lake water annually being unnecessarily treated by Pittsburgh’s water treatment plant. The lake also had poor water quality causing combined sewer overflow to the river and flooding downstream.

The Phronesis and Burns & McDonnell design team has begun the process of designing and implementing green infrastructure solutions to improve the lake, enhance the park and reconnect the lake to a natural flow path to the river. The lake restoration and new stream connection resolve the overflow problem without hindering the natural beauty of the park’s landscape. Other park improvements will include the restoration of historical and ecological features of the park, the creation of new trails, a network of green streets and much more.

A true collaborative effort, this large-scale green infrastructure project came together with funding from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory and The Heinz Endowments, with support from Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the mayor’s office.

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