In early 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, Laudato sí. In it, the pontiff argues that, regardless of religious faith, “the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has taken this call to heart.
On May 7, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., offered a blessing at the District’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery, which dates back to 1858. That blessing was directed at the new, green infrastructure that has eliminated some of the cemetery’s impervious surfaces, making it a friendlier receptacle for rainwater. The changes also help reduce an annual fee of nearly $140,000 associated with water run-off, or $25.18 for every 1000 square feet of impervious cover.
Impervious surfaces make won’t allow water to pass through them. Concrete, asphalt and metal structures can end up creating steams of water that rush into urban drainage systems and then overload water treatment plants. If that happens, the excess water simply gets flushed directly into local water ways, complete with whatever bacteria, pollutants, trash and sediment it happens to pick up along the way. Untreated stormwater run-off has contributed to creating a critical situation in the Chesapeake Bay, which has been grappling with pollution issues for years.
Chieko Noguchi, spokesperson for the Archdiocese, explained some of the changes made in Mt. Olivet Cemetery to make it more absorbent: “Unused access roads were replaced with water-filtering bio-retention cells, and in some cases, wide roads were narrowed down to one-lane roads.”
Prior to the modifications, the cemetery had 437,000 square feet of impervious surfaces. Noguchi says that 18,000 square feet have been removed so far. The more sophisticated water-retention structures are also being helped by newly planted flower beds, shrubs and trees.
“Because it was in a cemetery, we also wanted to make sure that none of the burial sites were disturbed,” says Noguchi And, it was also very important to us that any of the construction work would happen around any already-scheduled burials, and we didn’t want it to impede with anyone coming to visit their loved ones in the cemetery.”
To finance the landscaping changes to Mt. Olivet, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., worked with District Stormwater LLC, a new investment fund jointly managed by NatureVest, the investment arm of The Nature Conservancy, and Encourage Capital, an investment firm that specializes in investing capital to address social and environmental issues. The fund itself received $1.7 million in seed capital from Prudential, the insurance and financial services giant.
Instead of making the Archdiocese repay District Stormwater LLC for financing the stormwater retention work, the fund will seek repayment from a whole new market — from the sale of stormwater retention credits.
In 2013, the Washington, D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment launched new rules that govern how new properties — or old ones undergoing significant remodeling — deal with stormwater. The new rules create tradeable stormwater retention credits, enabling developers to comply with the more stringent stormwater retention rules while also generating investment capital for stormwater retention projects. If a property doesn’t meet its new stormwater retention volume requirements, developers can choose to make improvements to satisfy those requirements, or if the cost of those improvements is too much, they can purchase stormwater retention credits from those who can make such investments at other locations, such as the Archdiocese of Washington D.C
With its green lawns and trees but also plenty of access roads across vast acreage, not to mention its proximity to the Anacostia River, Mt. Olivet Cemetery presented an opportunity for a test case.
It was The Nature Conservancy that approached the Archdiocese with a proposal to identify and finance stormwater retention improvements. After making the improvements, generating stormwater retention credits for the Archdiocese, the credits can then be sold on the stormwater retention credit market to repay the up-front investment from District Stormwater LLC.
“[The new stormwater credit market] is great because it provides an opportunity to bring in new sources of funding to do conservation projects and also show that you can use private equity [to finance] conservation outcomes,” says Kahlil Kettering, The Nature Convervancy’s Urban Conservation Director. “It’s a new way to bring different partners to the table.”
As a “sunset cemetery” that will soon reach capacity and will remain a sanctified space, Kettering saw a key opening for long-term stormwater retention improvements at Mt. Olivet — there isn’t open land that could be threatened by sale to developers who would replace it with impervious surface.
“We know whatever we do there will be there for a very long time and will have a huge benefit for our rivers in D.C.,” says Kettering.
Noguchi also adds that as part of the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese will also have opportunities to share information and encourage similar stormwater retention improvements on church property across the country. “We’re doing something unique and innovative to deal with something that the secular world is deeply engaged in,” says Noguchi.
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Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.