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Making Rain a Resource, Not a Pollution Source

  • by
  • September 7, 2012
  • 7:00 pm
Making Rain a Resource, Not a Pollution Source

by Peter Lehner, Executive Director, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)

New York City, like hundreds of older cities around the country, can’t stand the rain. With so much paved area, and so little ground to soak up the water, the city’s sewer system can get overwhelmed by a mere tenth of an inch of rainfall, triggering the discharge of polluted runoff from streets mixed with untreated sewage into the nearest water body. Anyone who’s walked along the Hudson River the morning after a storm knows what this looks like.

For New York, excess stormwater is one of the biggest sources of water pollution in the city. It’s a 30-billion-gallon-a-year problem.

The traditional approach to stormwater management is to treat it like garbage, as waste that needs to be disposed of, but a growing number of cities have recently embraced an innovative new approach to stormwater that transforms this “waste” into a resource that will improve neighborhoods. By building out a suite of solutions known as green infrastructure — including features like porous pavement, street plantings, and green roofs — city landscapes can absorb rainwater where it falls.  Instead of washing straight into the sewer system and triggering sewage discharges, this water can be used as nature intended, to nurture trees and plants, keeping neighborhoods cooler, greener and the air cleaner.

A street planting outside a Brooklyn playground (pictured above) is one of the city’s pilot projects. By expanding the planted area around a streetside tree, using native plants and specially-engineered absorbent soil, city engineers have created a system that can absorb nearly 1,000 gallons of stormwater runoff, which would have previously been mixed with sewage and ejected directly into Jamaica Bay. The tree box also has extra storage chambers underground, which can hang on to extra water and slowly release it for the trees to drink.

The city plans to eliminate 1.5 billion gallons of water waste each year through green infrastructure, and aims to save billions of dollars as compared to the cost of building conventional “gray” infrastructure, such as pipes and large storage tanks.

“It’s particularly important for the state and city to leverage innovative, cost-effective solutions like these when there are competing social needs and taxpayer dollars must deliver more services for less,” said city councilman James F. Gennaro, who supported the plan. Business leaders are on board with the effort as well, praising its cost-effectiveness and the use of public and private properties for stormwater management.

Philadelphia has an even more ambitious green infrastructure plan, and other cities are exploring the idea as well. Using green infrastructure to stop water waste is a radical departure from the norm, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see the idea take root. Stopping waste, even though it makes perfect sense, sometimes requires a change in thinking — and when it happens, the ripple effects can spread far and wide.


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This post is part of NRDC’s Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries that are finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and valuable resources.

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9:54AM PDT on Sep 30, 2012


1:44PM PDT on Sep 11, 2012

Along with rain being better handled as the resource it should be , regulations barring grey water systems should be reversed, so that water used for such tasks as dish washing, showering and the like can be used to service the needs of lawns, gardens and other greening.

Currently that water is treated purely as waste, with conservation efforts banning the watering of various foliage and encouraging the creation of more heat islands.

The information from the USGS regarding the most common household uses of water
would seem to clearly demonstrate that the majority of water consumption could be easily repurposed rather than being treated strictly as a waste product.

1:19PM PDT on Sep 11, 2012

With water running low everywhere in the world right now, we should take advantage of rain to collect and use it properly, instead of calling it waste. Good initiative.

11:54PM PDT on Sep 10, 2012

Way to go New York and Philly!! Let's follow suit!

12:40PM PDT on Sep 10, 2012

Using big planters most of the length of the block, leaving just the area right at the intersection without planters could have the side effect of discouraging jay-walking, which should cut down on pedestraians getting run down.. I also like the idea of roof top gardens to hold water and show off edible landscaping--nice looking vegetables to sell to residents in the building. For thet matter, wrap the apartment building with greenhouse space to grow more vegetables for building residents. Artists would love the northern exposure--only some edible greens not anything with flowers or fruit would grow there. South and east exposures are most condusive to gardening. West exposure is a little iffy.

8:57AM PDT on Sep 10, 2012

Wish we could go back to the days when rain actually WAS a resource and not a pollution source. The biggest pollution source we have is an overpopulation of humans......

7:27AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

My property has an area that stays wet most of the year. It is not officially considered a wetland, but to me it is. Here in Florida wetlands are indangered. Even wetlands can be used if you have another wetland area to trade for it. Since my area has not been designated a wetland, I could fill it in, and use the land. But I have decided it is too valuable as wetland. So I leave it alone, even enjoy it as I have seen Great Blue Herons and other water birds stop in and drink and feed. We have millions of frogs singing and yes mosquetos too. But the dragonflys love them. They come in dozens of beautiful iridesent colors. I don't use weed controls in my yard, it is is mishmash of green with natural grasses and flowers and weeds and I mow it but do nothing else. This is what nature intended, not that we change her, but learn to live with her. We need to preserve wetlands, stop using pesticides and weed killers and give up the suberban green lawn. I live in the country, no one cares how many weeds we have. By the way, a weed is just a flower that grows where you don't want it to. We need to let them grow where they want to.

2:15AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

"...Raindrops keep falling on my head..."

1:00AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

This is great real sensible & innovative.

9:59PM PDT on Sep 8, 2012

Sounds like a good idea. Thank you.

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