How Philly is Financing Storm Water Retrofits

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Inefficient storm water systems can lead to standing water in city streets, flooding in residents' basements and CSOs in local waterways. Photo: Flickr/Alan Stanton

Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a new report on how local and state governments can stimulate potentially billions of dollars in private investment to offset the costs of repairing their antiquated storm water infrastructures.

The report uses Philadelphia as a test case to explore private-sector financing options for storm water retrofits. The city is one of nearly 800 in America that uses a combined sewer system, which processes storm water runoff through the same set of pipes that handles sewage from buildings.

During heavy rain, water treatment facilities can’t accommodate all the water, which triggers the release valve on the system – causing both sewage and storm water to be diverted together into local rivers (called combined-sewer overflows or CSOs).

To combat the problem, Philadelphia has committed at least $1.67 billion over 25 years for green retrofits of public streets and buildings. The city also has a storm water performance standard on the books, which requires that all new construction and redevelopment projects take runoff management into account.

READ: Colorado Bill Legalizes Rainwater Harvesting

The missing piece of the puzzle is what to do with the existing built environment that is not city-owned or undergoing redevelopment (mostly commercial properties). Helping property owners do their part is where the financing approach comes in, said Larry Levine, co-author of the report and NRDC water attorney.

Philadelphia encourages property owners to install green infrastructure with a storm water utility fee structure that charges them based on impervious surfaces on their property. The structure also includes a credit of up to nearly 100 percent if they keep the first inch of rainfall on their property rather than letting it run off into storm drains – a system that creates huge opportunities for private financing, Levine said.

“What we’ve done is some analysis of the savings that property owners can reap by investing in retrofits, how those compare to the costs of retrofits and how you can get a positive return on investment,” he explained. “You can become eligible for that credit, continue to get [it] on your billing year after year and hopefully come out ahead – which is a win-win for the city and for the property owner.”

READ: Historic NYC Building Undergoes Green Makeover

However, most property owners don’t have the cash to pay for up-front costs and a wide range of barriers exist for financing, Levine said.

“There are a variety of tools that have been used [for energy efficiency retrofits] to help overcome those barriers and to draw private capital into the marketplace…that can be used to provide the up-front costs of installing green infrastructure for property owners who want to do it,” he said.

“Then the savings the property owner realizes on their monthly storm water bill can be shared between the property owner and the investor,” he added.

NRDC is working with Philadelphia to pilot some of the financing approaches explored in the report. The group estimates a potential for $376 million in private investment in Philadelphia alone.

READ: Philly’s First Porous Street Curbs Pollution

More than 400 U.S. cities and towns use a similar storm water fee structure, and Levine said these areas are best suited for private financing, as such systems provide a financial incentive for redevelopment.

While Levine predicted in a recent NRDC blog post that Philadelphia will lead the way in finding innovative funding options, he said that “many other cities, facing similar challenges, could be primed to do the same.”

As NRDC detailed in a report last November, cities across the country are using green infrastructure, including green roofs, rainwater harvesting and permeable pavement, to combat their storm water woes.

To learn more about commercial property retrofits and green infrastructure trends, check out Philly’s Green Guide for Property Management or this national rainwater harvesting report from NRDC.

Mary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni

Based in the Phoenix metro area, Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.

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