Ways & Means is a weekly column by Mark Alan Hughes on economics, politics and sustainability in Philadelphia.
This Sunday, the Philadelphia Parks Alliance will honor Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner Howard Neukrug. It’s a fitting choice for the Alliance’s 2012 Celebration, recognizing the EPA’s approval last year of the department’s Green City, Clean Waters plan, a 25-year roadmap for reducing storm water runoff and water pollution that has been hailed as a national model by everyone from the Philadelphia Inquirer to National Geographic.
“We spent a lot of time trying to clean water after it’s polluted,” Shawn M. Garvin, EPA regional administrator for the area encompassing Philly, told National Geographic. “‘Now we’re focusing on how to keep water from coming into contact with pollution in the first place. The likelihood is that this will be significantly more cost effective than gray infrastructure.’”
That plan contains ideas big and small, knitted together under Nuekrug’s leadership. Some of the ideas involve employing new technologies and data sources, others depend on plain old-fashioned politics.
Falling in the former category is the city’s long-time-coming modernization of stormwater impact fees. The department’s old system, a product of earlier technology, assessed a property owner’s stormwater impact on the size of the water supply. Basically, they used the data they had. But with modern GIS mapping technology, stormwater impact can easily be assessed more meaningfully on the size the property. While revenue-neutral, this change had huge implications for the distribution of stormwater fees among property owners. And that created incentives for property owners to pursue green infrastructure to avoid stormwater impact. Nice ricochet, Howard.
But as with so many environmental policies, part of the challenge is getting decision makers and constituents to recognize all the benefits, including ones that aren’t currently in the ledger books. In addition to keeping water out of the Philadelphia’s aging pipe system — and thus reducing costs from combined sewer overflows — green infrastructure also produces co-benefits from the tree canopies, food production, animal habitat and porous surfaces of which green infrastructure is composed. Those additional columns in the ledger book of public policy make green infrastructure look downright cheap next to big new pipes that only do one thing.
I first met Howard when he came up to me after an early speech I’d given as Philadelphia’s sustainability director. I’d used a line about how I had the best job in city government, and Howard afterward insisted that he, in fact, had the best job as watersheds director. He is truly a happy warrior whose work singlehandedly gets us very close to the mayor’s goal of making Philadelphia the greenest city in the nation.
Maybe singlehandedly is the wrong phrase. It is not surprising that a successful enterprise grows conservative over time — at some point, deviating from the status quo seems like deviating success itself. That pattern was apparent at the Water Department, where the engineering and financing of pipes and pumps and tanks was long ago mastered. With this success already in the bag, operational experts dominated the Water Department, resting on the laurels of successful, well-established practices.
Neukrug changed that when he created the Office of Watersheds at PWD. Deftly working within the Water Department and with other agencies such as the predecessor to the Department of Parks and Recreation, he funded an analysis supporting the case that building green infrastructure to prevent pollution is smarter than building gray infrastructure to remediate pollution. Indeed,one of Neukrug’s most meaningful achievement has been to attract and empower this team of colleagues, too numerous to mention here. Let it suffice to say that these colleagues formed a disruptive core in various parts of the Water Department. And that disruption will soon mean a smoother water system.
Mark Alan Hughes teaches at PennDesign and was Philadelphia’s founding Director of Sustainability.