Vaikko Allen is region regulatory director for Contech Engineered Solutions. Allen can be reached at [email protected]
Feb 27, 2012

Storm Water Infrastructure Improvements

From roads and bridges to drinking water and sewer lines, the nation’s infrastructure is aging at a rate faster than it is being revitalized. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation an overall ‘D’ grade and identified a five-year spending gap of more than $1 trillion in its Infrastructure Report Card.

The 2008 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Water Needs Survey estimates the unfunded capital costs of needed water quality-related public health projects in the next 20 years to be $291 billion, including $42.3 billion for storm water management. On the upper end of the scale, The Mayor’s Water Council estimates that $3 trillion to $4.8 trillion will be needed for water infrastructure between 2009 and 2028.

The investment required to address these needs is massive by any measurement. When it comes to storm water management infrastructure, many of the systems that we will rely on in the future to cleanse, infiltrate and harvest rainwater and storm water runoff have yet to be constructed. In the face of recent widespread municipal budgetary contractions, justifying any expenditure on such public projects can be difficult. However, there is some evidence that such spending is exactly what is needed to stimulate economic activity and create jobs while improving public safety and environmental quality.

Green for All recently issued a report describing the potential economic return on a five-year, $188.4-billion investment in storm water management and water quality improvement. “Water Works – Rebuilding Infrastructure, Creating Jobs, Greening the Environment” concludes that this investment would create nearly 1.9 million jobs and result in $265.6 billion in economic activity. Compared to other public-sector levers that stimulate the economy, such as personal or business tax cuts, infrastructure investment has a much greater effect.

The report lays out a simple yet effective argument for accelerating investment now because of—not in spite of—current economic conditions. It reasons that investment would create jobs now, when they are needed most; that the cost of financing is at a historic low; and that project costs currently are low due to competition for construction work.

The report advocates the use of green infrastructure, those practices that mimic predevelopment hydrology by infiltrating, evapotranspiring and/or harvesting storm water. These systems are expected to augment local water supply; reduce the size, operation and maintenance costs of downstream treatment works; reduce combined sewer overflow and sanitary sewer overflow events; and improve the livability of public spaces.

Regulatory changes are afoot, adding urgency to storm water infrastructure improvements. In response to the fact that storm water discharge remains the leading cause of surface water impairment, the EPA is promulgating new green infrastructure-based rules that are intended to extend National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program coverage, develop consistent development requirements and require retrofit of the built environment.

These rules are planned to become effective by the end of 2012. There are also more than 46,000 completed total maximum daily loads nationwide that must be addressed. These two drivers will require a major increase in expenditure on capital improvement projects. Perhaps now is the time to get a jump on storm water infrastructure improvement projects to improve water quality and the economy at the same time.