As states begin re-opening phases from COVID-19, many are looking at what the impact will be on public and environmental health.
As much of the country is now starting to open up from months-long stay-at-home orders, many are taking an assessment of the toll-to-date from this strange and challenging period. As well, many are questioning what this means with regards to numerous prevailing public health and environmental challenges – from climate change to increasing threats to water resources and community livability, particularly with hurricane season fast approaching. After all, how could we prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the absence of safe, clean water? In fact many thanks to our front line water infrastructure operators and caretakers for this important quality of life. However, for these and other related matters, economic impacts are naturally at the top of this ever-evolving, growing list of current and future prospects and challenges for our well-being. The crucial question is how can we become more resilient – as communities, as a country, as a planet? Few can argue that environment and public health figures prominently in these scenarios.
A natural nexus for these two areas of focus is that of natural/green infrastructure and storm water management. COVID-19, being a pervasive and ubiquitous specter in our midst, certainly has had both micro and macro-scale adverse impacts in the storm water sector. In a practical, on-the-ground context, mandated storm water programs have been clearly disrupted by urgent needs to shutter such operations to control and prevent spread of this novel human coronavirus. For example, storm water permits and affiliated annual reports were pre-existing requirements under law driven by timelines and schedules before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. However due to the pandemic, states have provided timeline extensions for compliance-related actions and reporting. MS4 Minimum Control Measures (MCM) for meeting storm water permit requirements are premised upon the ability to engage and educate the impacted public as well as meet with various stakeholders in person to visit project sites or other similar destinations of impact– it will be a while before a site inspector will unroll a set of plans on the hood of a truck to confirm project measures surrounded by site engineers and workers anxious to get through the approval process – and certainly without personal protective equipment of some kind. Also considering that storm water practice inspection parties typically occur in groups of two or more – it has been difficult-to-impossible for an inspection crew to be in close quarters in a confined space. COVID-19 has had direct impacts on programmatic operations and regulatory schedules in the storm water sector.
An important aspect of storm water infrastructure impacted by the coronavirus situation that is not as clear as missed annual report schedules and other administratively driven requirements is the positive impact that installed green storm water controls or natural-based “green” infrastructure has on our public and mental health – a much needed respite during these times of self-isolation, social distancing, and increased anxiety. A study from Portland, Oregon, focusing on the relationship between green streets and physical activity for older residents found that Portlanders over 65 and living in close proximity to green streets identify an increase in time spent walking by 30%. The health of elderly populations is of utmost concern at this time, so any way to safely increase physical activity and overall health of these populations now is clearly a valued asset – this is a tremendous benefit of green infrastructure.
The same Portland study found that time spent outside playing by children near green street corridors increased by an estimated 28%. The draw of natural infrastructure for children is a welcome side-effect of stay-at-home orders for many parents who have struggled with balancing the boredom of too many board games with distance learning dynamics – and keeping young active children from going stir-crazy.
One example is the study led by the universities of Indiana and Washington that found a positive correlation between the increased “greenness” of dense urban areas as the corresponding reduction in a child’s body mass over time (and therefore reduced chance for obesity). Same for a similar study overseas, which found positive correlations between characteristics of urban green spaces (UGSs)and adolescents’ (aged 13-19) self-reported green exercise (GE), general health and body mass index (BMI). The benefits of green infrastructure have also been linked with improved immunity, reduced cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and overall mortality as well as reduced circulatory disease, obesity, morbidity from respiratory diseases including asthma and improved longevity of senior citizens, pain control, postoperative recovery and child cognitive development. This time stuck at home has been a way for many families and children to reconnect nature and “heal” in a more sustained and deeper way, which may have lasting positive effects in the future, including hopefully, greater commitment and investment in healthy ecosystems by future generations.
Unfortunately, this ability to reconnect with nature and reap its many benefits is not an equal opportunity resource in the U.S., however. Many urban areas, from which we are seeing high mortality rates from COVID-19 are listed near the top of most polluted areas across the country. One example is the neighborhood of Boynton located in southwest Detroit and nearby River Rouge, both which have been identified as home to the most polluted zip code in Michigan.
Studies have found significantly higher rates of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases for residents of this zip code, who are predominantly Black. Also, as of mid-May of 2020, the county where Boynton and River Rouge are located have experienced more COVID-19 deaths than almost any other outside of New York state. The link between poor air quality, minority populations and decreased public health conditions has been an ongoing problem in the U.S. for decades and the current coronavirus crisis has once again exposed this connection as Black people are dying at twice the rate as white populations. This difference in mortality rate may be associated with exposure to COVID-19 due to occupation type, but it is clear that impacted lungs or other underlying conditions make populations more susceptible to serious hospitalization or death to due COVID-19, and with areas like Boynton, it is clear that minorities are more at risk due to environmental conditions.
In a recent study, researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that higher levels of tiny particles in air known as PM 2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the disease. In reviewing preliminary data, researchers also found that Black people, who have higher populations living in areas with high levels of air pollution are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than whites, even though they make up a smaller percentage of the population, thereby highlighting health inequities that have existed for many years.
For weeks, public health officials have surmised a link between dirty air and death or serious illness from COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus. The Harvard analysis is the first nationwide study to show a statistical link, revealing a “large overlap” between Covid-19 deaths and other diseases associated with long-term exposure to fine particulate matter.
Consistent with its universal devastating economic impacts, the pandemic is also shrinking prospects for much needed storm water programs, already critically underfunded, yet acknowledged as a key investment area for offsetting impacts from higher frequency, more intense storms due to climate-change. To date, these major storm events have cost the U.S. economy multiple billions of dollars annually– over $70B in 2018, declared by NOAA to be the fourth warmest year since 1880. Bonding and rating agencies, such as Moody’s, have begun to take stock of preventative measures, such as green infrastructure to offset impacts, downgrading those communities that have not made the necessary investments.
Unlike other infrastructure sectors, such as drinking water and wastewater, a majority (over 70%) of storm water programs are typically funded through general funds at the local/municipal level. This lack of enterprise dedicated revenues leaves the storm water sector more vulnerable to economic shocks to municipal government budgets than other sectors. A Brookings Institution article recently pointed out that municipal governments’ budgets dropped by 9% during the 2008 recession, and even when local tax revenues returned by 2012, the spending level by local governments was sluggish for many years after that. Considering that the U.S. experienced the greatest single job loss in a single month in April this year, it is very likely that the recession – or even depression – will outscale the 2008/2009 recession significantly. The impact of this on all water infrastructure, particularly the storm water sector, despite the active use of green infrastructure to reduce pathogen-contaminated combined sewer overflows, is likely to be a major setback due to significant reductions in budgets. This is a sector that is often at the bottom of the list of budget priorities for local governments struggling with police, schools and local transportation programs –to name a few.
The federal government is providing support for localities through a $150 billion provision targeting local governments in the CARES act signed into law in April, but the same Brookings Institution article points out that much more investment is needed by the federal government to support localities who are impacted by massive reductions in revenues tied to sales and hotel taxes as well as other local revenue generators.
While we have identified the good and bad ways that the storm water sector and green infrastructure have been impacted by COVID-19, there should be consideration for what is to come. For example, the 1918 influenza pandemic is often cited as a driver for the modernist architecture movement, which stressed cleanliness, streamlined form and more sunlight in interior spaces to kill influenza bacteria. In a similar way, some speculate that the sealed office buildings with intense HVAC systems may give way to less reliance on air conditions and more reliance on biophilic or air purification systems that mimic nature and “living architecture,” such as green roofs and walls to improve poorly-ventilated spaces that can exacerbate viral spreading.
In a much larger way, what is to come may be driven by the overall investment made in infrastructure in the coming year. Infrastructure investment at a large scale has been discussed at the federal level for the last several years, but never has it become so critical for the federal government to invest in our country’s infrastructure to drive jobs, spur economic activity and address a sagging infrastructure overall.
If this large-scale investment comes to pass, we should not just invest in existing infrastructure, but look to use this as an opportunity to create smarter, greener, more resilient and multi-beneficial infrastructure, such as green infrastructure, to achieve much more with less. The investment in GI will not only help to drive local green jobs, clean water, reduce localized flooding, improve urban conditions, and enhance public health conditions fairly and equitably but also prepare us for an increasingly changing climate and intense precipitation patterns. Again, if there is a silver lining to this current clouded situation, maybe it will include the recognition that stormwater and related green infrastructure are investments worth making towards a more resilient future. Maybe then the next time a pandemic hits, perhaps we will be a bit more prepared to weather the storm.
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