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Gray v. Green Infrastructure

By Raquel Jones, GOPC Intern As the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) sets out on a $3 billion tunnel project, questions have been raised as to whether enough focus is being spent on a possibly cheaper and greener alternative to tunnels. Rates continue to increase to cover the cost of these expansive projects, but some ratepayers are not convinced that this is the best solution to their water and sewage issues. Some argue that green infrastructure (such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and bio-infiltration installations) can often provide more sustainable benefits at a lesser cost than single-purpose gray infrastructure. Furthermore, building green infrastructure could possibly improve the overall aesthetic quality of some of Cleveland’s most blighted neighborhoods, by turning vacant lots into lush rain gardens and building more parks. These sort of green projects support property values by beautifying the surrounding areas, while also stimulating the economy by providing landscaping and maintenance jobs.

Although the NEORSD had originally agreed to include green infrastructure in their water and sewer system, they are now planning to spend 97.5% of project funds on seven large tunnels. Some arguments in favor of this decision include the fact that many green projects come with high barriers, such as the EPA requirement that the sewer district have full control over the land in perpetuity, so that it can be properly maintained. Sewer district Executive Director Julius Ciacca and his team have also argued that much of the green infrastructure technology is still unproven in large-scale applications and would be much more time-consuming, which could prove to be a risky move when aiming to meet a series of strict federally mandated benchmarks. This is due in part to the case that green infrastructure is often capable of capturing only the first inch of rainfall and diverting it from the sewer, so that in heavier rains, water retention features become overwhelmed, and the overflow defaults to the combined sewer system.

Although green infrastructure may be difficult to implement in the short term, the lasting effects of going green are undeniable. More and more cities are continuing to pursue green alternatives, such as Philadelphia’s recent projects, as green infrastructure continues to prove to be both sustainable and inexpensive in comparison to gray infrastructure. In many ways, it also adds property value to localities, as it works to beautify deteriorating and impoverished communities. Due to its many benefits, when used in the right locations, green infrastructure can add great value to both the existing water and sewer infrastructure and to surrounding neighborhoods.