Philadelphia Water Department
Five years ago, Philadelphia civil engineer Dennis Shelly glimpsed a business opportunity lying out in the open — or more precisely, he spied that opportunity from 22,000 miles in orbit. Satellite images made plain an idea back on Earth that has since helped him grow a business that moves water around just below the planet’s surface.
Shelly heads PEER Environmental, an engineering and design firm that in its fifth year is well on the way to revenues of $1 million. PEER’s specialty is green infrastructure — green rooftops, rain gardens or infiltration beds — on big plots of land. This, to shift stormwater so that it’s absorbed into the ground and kept out of the city sewers. Shelly’s clients are rewarded handsomely by the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), which not only cuts their water bills — by as much as 80 percent, which can translate to tens of thousands of dollars per year — but also supplies grant funding to execute the projects. His job is the behind-the-scenes (well, underground, mostly) work of using gravity, stone, pipes, dirt and plants to manage how fast water seeps into the ground, where it can soak in gradually or even evaporate.
In 2010, the PWD changed how it calculated stormwater fees for large private customers, including big institutions and property owners. Instead of levying a fee based on monthly metered usage, the utility rolled out new rate calculations over several years based on how much area of a business’s surface area, including roofing, was covered by impermeable concrete or asphalt — materials that channeled water away from buildings and into the overtaxed sewer system. The less permeable the materials, the higher the fee.
PEER owes part of its success to that change in fee structure. While working as a consultant to determine stormwater rate corrections for the 130-acre campus of LaSalle University in the Logan neighborhood of the city, Shelly was struck by an observation. He scanned satellite images of the campus, looking over the grounds, parking lots, buildings, sidewalks and other exposure, and then took out a calculator to crunch the numbers. He discovered that were LaSalle to mitigate its stormwater runoff, the school could reap water bill savings of up to $100,000 a year. Shelly lobbied the facilities department in December 2013 and made no progress. He then took his idea to the college’s trustees and got an invitation to talk it up in a meeting. So a business was born.
Shelly had targeted a $5-million grant application for the entire campus. The PWD, however, limited the grant and the first project was circumscribed to one part of the south end of school on a downward sloping hill where water was collected in a flood-control basin. The engineer designed two rain gardens there as well as a third below a parking lot, a first phase that was finished in 2015. When those were done, enough funds were left to start work on five underground infiltration beds completed in 2016 beneath parking lots in the West campus and an additional one this past summer and still another to be completed. The last will be finished in the next few months, bringing the total project to 17.7 acres financed entirely with $2.2 million in PWD funds and saving LaSalle about $75,000 a year on stormwater fees.
PEER Environmental installs three underground infiltration basins at PINN Memorial Baptist Church, in Wynnefield. (Credit: PEER Environmental)
In its dual role as Philadelphia’s water provider and water remover, PWD is the key player in a broader program to cut sewage overflows after rainfalls. In those instances, rainwater and any waste flushed away by human and industrial users overburden the city’s underground pipes and treatment network to the point where untreated waste must be released directly into local waterways. A critical step, therefore, was to get landowners — parking lots, factories, shopping malls and others — to focus on how much water their property shed into the sewers during rainy days.
The tax incentives, grant funding and Shelly’s uptick in business with PEER are all connected to an ambitious 25-year project that the PWD and the city of Philadelphia set into motion seven years ago called Green City, Clean Waters (GCCW). By the plan’s culmination, in 2036, the goal is to spend $2.4 billion (in 2036 dollars) on steering 85 percent of stormwater out of its sewer system to improve the quality of the rivers, streams and creeks that make up its local watershed. The result would bring Philadelphia in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act.
Despite what some characterized as an uncertain “Wild West” mentality at the outset regarding how projects were developed, grants awarded and regulations disseminated, initial results have proven a clear success. In 2016, the five-year mark, PWD announced that GCCW exceeded their initial five-year regulatory target, and reduced runoff and sewer overflows by more than 1.5 billion gallons annually. According to the PWD’s 932-page annual report on stormwater management, 597 projects have been completed and 1159 acres greened as the program nears the end of year seven.
The program has garnered praise for both engineering and aesthetic improvements, claiming the benefits of bettering city life, improving water quality and even making Philadelphia streets prettier. The PWD can point to a long list of positives, including increasing property values and enhancing public spaces and schools. A 2015 study even attributed positive health outcomes and increased neighborhood safety, in part, to green stormwater infrastructure improvements.
The challenge is that many of the positive experiential or anecdotal outcomes elude easy quantification. GCCW will continue to grapple with aggressive goals in the face of an ever-tightening city budget. As political leadership changes, so may the anticipated outcomes. And as the projects considered “low-hanging fruit” finish up, the question remains: how will the PWD continue to meet its aggressive benchmarks once the way forward is not as clear? Here, Next City offers a snapshot of the businesses who have benefitted from the program, and looks at the challenges GCCW faces over the next 18 years.
The Sustainable Business Network (SBN), an organization that acts as something of a chamber of commerce for green companies in Philadelphia, published a 2015 report in an effort to track the economic activity triggered by Green City, Clean Waters at the five-year anniversary of the program’s start. SBN’s analysis calculated the overall impact to be revenues of about $60 million a year, 430 local jobs created and close to $1 million generated in local taxes. A group within SBN, the Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) Partners, reported close to 14 percent revenue growth, to $17.8 million in 2014. Based on the water utility’s expenditures projection of $1.2 billion (in 2009 dollars) over the life of Green City, Clean Waters, the SBN thinks predictions of a total economic impact of $3.1 billion are conservative. The same goes for the accompanying figures of 1,000 jobs created and $2 million in local tax revenues generated every year during the life of the project. SBN’s executive director, Anna Shipp, says an update to the 2015 report is in process, and she feels preliminary analysis, while not yet complete, should show GCCW well on its way to handily exceed those numbers.
GCCW has sparked economic benefit not only for engineers, landscapers and contractors directly linked to public and private work projects, but legions of people whom those businesses employ. The commerce sparked by the program has benefits across a wide array of businesses. Designers draft plans for gardens, swales and planters. Engineers create blueprints for sump systems to collect, channel and release water at specified intervals. Nursery owners and landscapers provide plants, trees and shrubs. Contractors put the plans into motion, everything from digging to putting down stone and traps.
For Shelly, the LaSalle contract was a springboard. He says he envisioned setting PEER apart from the competition as a turnkey operation, one that could file grant applications and supervise projects while subcontracting design and construction work. From its original idea and that first project, the company now has one part-time and seven full-time employees. In a total of 20 projects since 2013, PEER has “greened” nearly 70 acres of impervious surface and helped its clients secure close to $9.5 million in grant funding.
A map from 2017 showing the scope of completed projects connected to the Green City, Clear Waters program. (Credit: Philadelphia Water Department)
Damean Snyder’s tree-planting and care company, Terraquarbor, has also picked up a sizeable chunk of work. Snyder started off five years ago as a certified arborist and tree climber. He found the going tough competing with other more established rivals and three years ago took on a horticulturalist partner, Jennifer Hendricks, to scout other possibilities. One avenue became apparent: PWD’s Rain Check, a program set up with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society to provide homeowners with free rain barrels and subsidized planters, landscaping services and installations. Snyder attended Rain Check training sessions and obtained certification to install pavers and rain gardens.
Snyder’s efforts have transformed Terraquarbor, which now gets half of its business from Rain Check installations. He says he’s contracted to install pavers on average three times a month in addition to rain barrels and rain-garden landscaping. On a typical job, Hendricks makes the first visit to make a consultation, photograph the site and take measurements all in order to see if homeowner applicants qualify. She gets “carte blanche” to choose the plants for landscaping projects. “Typically we go with 60 percent perennials and 40 percent evergreens,” Snyder says. Cardinal flowers, as well as ornamental grasses such as Karl Foerster and miscanthus, have been particularly popular this year.
Terraquabor draws up an application and awaits PWD approval, which can take two to three months. “We’ve benefitted from add-on work,” says Snyder. “People get excited about transforming their yard — everything from new fencing, shed work, raised container beds or building a patio around containers.” Snyder has taken on crews of two to three to respond to increased demand; paver work typically takes four days from start to finish.
Jennifer Nichols says her company, GreenWeaver Landscapes, is another success story. GreenWeaver makes about $1 million in annual revenues and has picked up 14 Green City, Clean Waters stormwater projects since 2017, bringing in some $100,000 in sales. Nichols and her husband, Greg, had 30 years of experience in landscaping and struck out on their own in 2008 to start a company focused on environmentalism. Much of GreenWeaver’s business caters to individual property owners, and Nichols says stormwater management factors into nearly every project, such as installing downspouts or extenders to channel roof water into gardens and flower beds. GreenWeaver also does residential work installing rain barrels as part of PWD’s Rain Check, and has contracted with watershed organizations for streamside plantings.
Nichols takes particular pride in the role GreenWeaver played in a challenging green roof landscaping project at a five-story building, The Bridge on Race Street, where trees and soil had to be brought up from street level by crane. Nichols had bought 18 trees for the garden — river birches, amelanchiers, redbuds — in time for prime planting season in March, when the green roof installer suddenly reported an emergency waterproofing leak. “Things weren’t resolved until July, and it was very hot that year,” she says with a laugh. “Things were a rush to the finish after the construction problems were fixed. We had to replace all the trees and plant 3,700 native perennials at the same time roof contractors were there tripping over our work.”
The genesis of Green City Clean Waters lies in a fundamental flaw of Philadelphia’s sewer system. Like many similar subterranean architectures that planners installed in cities across the Northeast, the Great Lakes and elsewhere in the country, much of Philadelphia’s wastewater system — two thirds by the PWD’s count — is made up of two complex, linked underground networks. One primary channel collects what households and industries alike cast off including millions of gallons of everything from the human waste flushed down toilets to used or excess water that goes down in the drain from showers, baths, faucets and washing machines. Businesses and factories as well contribute to these flows the wastewater used for cooling or washing equipment to processing food and more. This first network steers water to treatment plants where it’s cleaned and then released into the local waterways of the Delaware River Watershed, an intricate 118-mile webbing of seven creeks and tributaries including the Schuylkill, Pennypack and Wissahickon to name three.
The problem is with the design of a second channel, which draws in the rainwater that falls on streets, sidewalks and parking lots, in order to divert that excess into sewers joining the underground flow of waste. This feature is designed to keep Philadelphia and other cities from flooding. And while it may activate less frequently — it rains an average 124 or so days a year in Philadelphia — these additional flows overburden the city’s ability to first collect water and sewage together and then send the combined underground river to its cleaning facilities. When significant storms hit, essentially all the water — rainfall and waste — is released into rivers and waterways untreated. The spillage is dumped over 164 outfalls connected to Philadelphia’s water system along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and the Cobbs, Tookany, Tacony-Frankford and lower Pennypack creeks.
Kemble Park, in Lower West Oak Lane, gets a landscaped green stormwater basin. A big part of the GCCW initiative is bringing green infrastructure to parks, schools, rec centers, and other public spaces. (Credit: Philadelphia Water Department)
Green City, Clean Waters was developed to gradually alleviate the rainwater overflow part of the combined-sewer problem. City grants, issued under the Green Acre Retrofit Program (GARP), have promoted private sector buy-in. Since 2006, Philadelphia has also mandated that developers building on parcels of 15,000 or more square feet get approval for their stormwater management plans as well. Projects have to show how the first one-and-a-half inches of stormwater will be captured and diverted and secure approval for their plan before applying for zoning clearance and receiving a building permit. Howard Neukrug, the PWD commissioner when Green City, Clean Waters launched, says this last regulation is significant. “With the construction that takes place in the city and counting buildings being brought down and rebuilt as well — that alone should meet the project’s stormwater goal,” he says.
Success breeds mimicry, and Philadelphia’s ambitious stormwater plans have been embraced with open arms. The PWD is literally — and happily — overrun by delegations who come to tour Green Water sites, research policies and take notes. During the past year Singapore, Rotterdam and Hiroshima have sent representatives. In this country, groups from New York City, Newark, Cumberland, San Antonio, Washington State and Hawaii have arrived to give the works a closer look.
Like all visionary feats of engineering, GCCW is a master plan that has faced tweaks, revisions, detours and a few reversals over time. Other cities such as Portland have taken some of the same steps, but Philadelphia’s program was groundbreaking in terms of its scale and targets. It also thrust key players — designers, contractors, engineers and administrators — into uncharted territory. A year into the program, for example, when it became apparent that large real estate and private landowners were slow to sign on, the GARP program was launched to attract businesses to the program.
Neukrug says the utility went through initial trial and error as well. “The first time we did a basketball court at a school, we designed it entirely of porous asphalt,” he recalls. “The contractor, designer and project inspector had never done something like this before.” Neukrug said four truckloads of the special covering were ordered just to have enough on hand. “We were all amazed once the work was completed and we could see how it worked. We soon realized that there was no need to do the entire court in the stuff when installing it just around the edge would do.”
In many ways, Shelly’s success with PEER has followed a parallel pathway to the GCCW program itself. Shelly admits both he and the LaSalle facilities department — and ultimately the powers that were at the PWD — were new to what they were doing, figuring out on the fly how GCCW projects would work. He recalls submitting barebones sketches as part of his grant funding applications. “It was truly the wild west at the start,” he says, “We were all getting a feel for things.”
Despite marking phenomenal strides, GCCW faces formidable challenges over the next 18 years. Start with the political reality. The program’s bold mandate maps aggressive goals to be completed over a 25-year lifespan, a duration that has already crossed two mayoral administrations (Michael Nutter and Jim Kenney), not to mention two PWD commissioners (Neukrug and the utility’s current head, Debra A. McCarty). “Different agendas are perfectly fine and something you’d expect over time,” says Neukrug. “The important thing is that Philadelphia continues to evolve into a sustainable city that is flourishing and has a drinkable water supply, too.”
Green City, Clean Waters also has a lot of ground to cover. The PWD is a massive system with equally outsized responsibilities. PWD has approximately 3,000 miles of sewer, 79,000 stormwater inlets, three drinking water treatment plants, three sewage treatment plants, more than 25 pump stations and more than 3,000 miles of water mains. In a city of 1.6 million people covering 142 square miles, the PWD vies for finite financial resources in a city of competing needs. Just this past year, the utility applied for rate increases of 11 percent over three years. The city rate board, however, approved just 1 percent over the next two.
Then, there is plenty of rainwater to corral every year. The National Weather Service estimates that Philadelphia gets just over 40 inches of rain and another 20 or so in snow annually. That means that business as usual for the PWD is not only promoting green infrastructure but also channeling outflows through and away from the city through water mains and sewers, some of which were installed in the 19th century.
So even as Green City, Clean Waters launches new projects, the water utility must simultaneously replace those old parts of the network, the bulk of which are traditional pipework, also known as gray infrastructure. The PWD looks to replace 30 miles of water mains and 9 miles of sewers in the coming year, after completing 19 miles of water mains and 8.3 miles of sewers in fiscal 2018. The money to pay for ongoing improvements, the PWD fiscal 2019 capital budget, is set at $353.7 million, about $44 million of which is earmarked for GCCW.
Maintenance is another challenge. Green infrastructure relies on natural processes that are quite ordinary in a forest or park — plant growth, evaporation and seepage of moisture into the groundwater — but to cope with the stresses of urban life requires help from human handlers. Marc Cammarata, a PWD deputy commissioner for planning and environmental services, can list plenty of ongoing work that piles up and, if left untended, can actually sabotage green infrastructure installation. Plants in gardens must be pruned, cared for and replaced if damaged or stolen. Some sites need regular watering, especially during the summer. Vacuum trucks need to suck up dust and grime to keep permeable pavement properly porous. Sediments and junk, muck, plastics and even dog waste must be removed from inlets built into curbs.
Cammarata says in an effort to streamline the human intervention, the PWD now is installing sensors to monitor soil moisture and send back data to headquarters on how often plants need water. They’re also soliciting volunteers. In one program, the utility helps elementary and middle school teachers build their own soil-monitoring devices. And according to Joanne Dahme, head of PWD’s public affairs office, the PWD is working in tandem with other agencies to cut down on redundant construction costs. In practice, the means piggybacking on other projects that tear into sidewalks or pavement so that construction teams can partner to install curb gardens, swales, inlets or other green improvements.
The private sector and homeowners, too, have started to realize the extent of upkeep required — so much so that PEER’s Shelly is looking to hire a staffer to field the calls he’s getting for maintenance business.
Franco Montalto, a civil engineering professor at Drexel University, who has worked as a consultant on Green City, Clean Waters projects, says while the program has made considerable progress so far, it could face an uphill trek as it looks to expand. “The city has jumped into the easy stuff — changing parks, playgrounds and putting in green spaces every time we put in a street,” he says, “But those days will come to the end and the city will have to figure out ways to get into difficult places — and approach more homeowners and private-property owners simply because the program won’t able to fund all the green infrastructure needed to meet long-term regulatory goals.”
A vacant lot in West Philadelphia, at 55th and Hunter streets, gets a fence, gazebo, and rain-garden makeover, plus a new mural that depicts typical aquatic life of the Schuylkill River. (Credit: Philadelphia Water Department)
Montalto says one viable target could be Philadelphia’s inventory of vacant land. In dense blocks of 40 to 50 homes, he envisions grouping owners and their collective rainwater together around vacant lots. “Manage the stormwater from rooftops and you could conceivably turn one vacant lot nearby into a community space — an orchard, a garden, a playground,” he says, “The economy of scale is in clustering properties and repurposing vacant land as a community asset.”
One cornerstone for this next phase, Montalto says, will be to secure community buy-in with face-to-face resident input. He plans to test this out in a project nearby in Camden, New Jersey, where an overtaxed sewer system regularly spews in some neighborhoods. Montalto has the backing of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A community meeting planned for this Thursday will introduce a plan for green infrastructure interventions. “You’re going to have to talk to communities and be more deliberative. I don’t think cookie-cutter, standardized activity is going to work,” he suggests, “You might hire designers, [but] talk to people to see where their needs lie — growing vegetables because they live in a food desert, providing a safe, shady place for their kids to play or to set up a daycare center.”
For all of the what-have-you-done-for-me lately attitude that GCCW may ultimately face, Neukrug says it’s important to stay focused on what might have been. “If we had stuck exclusively to the old way of thinking, we would have ended up with retrofit solutions. One we had looked at was a $10-billion tunnel — the ‘100-year’ tunnel we called it because Philadelphia could never have afforded it in less than 100 years.” Instead, he says, Philadelphia took a pathway that is turning out to be revolutionary, provocative and a work in progress. The challenge ahead will be to keep citizens, business owners, entrepreneurs, stakeholders, regulators and bureaucrats aware … and engaged.
“We’ve set out making a state-of-the-art approach to water and put Philadelphia on the map as a leader in sustainability in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s remarkable.”
James A. Anderson is an English professor at the Lehman College (Bronx) campus of the City University of New York.