March 23, 2020

PennFuture Op-Ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia is already feeling the impacts of climate change. Eight of the past 12 years have been the hottest for the city, and Philadelphia has recorded 104 heat-related deaths. The city ranked third in the U.S. for largest increase in heavy downpours between the 1950s into the 2000s, on a 2015 list.

We’ve seen a 360% rise in storm events since 1950. Climate change already costs Pennsylvania taxpayers — in 2018 alone, the state spent $261 million in climate-related costs.

The good news is that Philadelphia’s newly inaugurated City Council brings renewed enthusiasm for environmental policy, as 11 of its 17 members support creating a Green New Deal for Philadelphia, per a survey PennFuture conducted with other local groups. Transitioning our energy system to net-zero emissions, creating clean jobs, investing in infrastructure, securing clean air and water, and promoting justice and equity are integral components of an environmental action plan.

Philly’s elected leaders are already advancing some of the components described in the resolution, introduced by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), known as the Green New Deal. But to truly transform the city and create a green economy, it will take political will, a massive shift in priorities, and unprecedented reinvestment in our public infrastructure.

One program that requires renewed attention and investment from municipal leaders is Green City, Clean Waters. The program was developed in 2011 primarily to reduce stormwater pollution by implementing green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) like rain gardens, tree trenches, and stormwater bumpouts, with the larger goal of addressing flooding and creating climate-resilient cities.

GSI intercepts stormwater before entering the main sewer system, filtering the water through rocks, soil, and plants, thereby reducing runoff in the system and decreasing the likelihood of localized flooding due to sewer system overflows. Beyond cleaner water, GSI creates jobs, beautifies and cools our neighborhoods, creates green spaces to recreate, reduces blight, and improves public safety.

But even with this mechanism to address stormwater, increased storm intensity and frequency will only exacerbate existing problems with aging and overburdened stormwater systems. Green City, Clean Waters was developed to address current stormwater pollution by managing 10,000 “greened acres” by 2036. But it does not account for the anticipated increase in rain events, sea-level rise, or flooding associated with climate change.

As new City Council environmental leaders discuss what a Green New Deal means for Philadelphia, they must focus their legislative agendas on addressing current barriers to implementing GSI and increase their commitment to the program, particularly in the face of climate change.

To start, City Council should hold a hearing on the state of GSI in Philadelphia. We are nearly 10 years into the program; now is an ideal time to learn from the lessons of the past near-decade of implementing the program to ensure it’s robust and financially sustainable. A public hearing would increase transparency, addressing concerns about some of Green City, Clean Waters’ challenges.

The program was envisioned as a way to address poverty, in addition to water pollution, by creating local jobs in the water infrastructure industry. GSI already creates more than a thousand Philadelphia jobs each year. City Council can incorporate equity requirements into Green City, Clean Waters so that it reaches every neighborhood and creates jobs across communities. The city should require GSI to be considered in every public capital project.

From school playgrounds and recreation center ballfields to streets and sidewalks, we need city leadership to join together and share responsibility for these stormwater initiatives. That includes funding a Clean Water Act Task Force coordinator position within the Managing Director’s Office to develop a strategic plan that addresses interagency coordination.

Finally, to invest in jobs and infrastructure to address climate change, city leaders should create a dedicated GSI fund to expand funding for the program.

The climate crisis is one of the city’s most significant challenges, but it’s also an opportunity for Council to rise to the challenge and transform Philadelphia’s economy while creating jobs, protecting clean water, and building climate resilience. Green City, Clean Waters is an opportunity for these leaders to put their words into action.

Lena Smith is a Philadelphia-based campaign manager for PennFuture, focusing on clean water advocacy. She can be reached at smith@pennfuture.org.