5 Takeaways on Creating Incentives for Natural Stormwater Infrastructure
Part three of a three-part series on the value of watersheds. This series explores communities that are using watersheds as natural solutions to their water issues; the barriers and policy solutions they’ve encountered; and, the work Willamette Partnership is doing to increase the pace and scale of these types of natural infrastructure solutions.
Stormwater is a major source of pollution in the U.S., and it’s the only source of water pollution that is still increasing across much of the country, including sensitive waterbodies such as the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound.
This month, Willamette Partnership brought over 50 leaders together in Washington D.C. to brainstorm how economic incentives could drive stormwater management more quickly and more effectively. We organized a three-day workshop on behalf of the National Network for Water Quality Trading (National Network), a group committed to improving water quality trading in the U.S., and came home with five good insights we’d like to share.
The work is a reminder that our relationship with water changes throughout the watershed. Our last post focused on healthy headwaters, where more water is usually better. Snow that accumulates high in the headwaters and rain that feeds forests, rivers, and streams are valued as sources for irrigation and community drinking water. In urban areas, however, hard surfaces such as roofs, parking lots, and streets prevent rain from soaking into the ground. The resulting runoff, or stormwater, takes oil, sediment, and other pollutants along with it into nearby rivers, lakes, and seas.
One approach to managing stormwater is green infrastructure, also known as natural infrastructure, which works to return natural water infiltration processes, often by allowing rain to soak in where it falls. Rain gardens, bioswales, eco-roofs, and street trees can be a cost-effective alternative to more traditional, built infrastructure, like big pipes, and can provide communities additional benefits such as open space, improved air quality, and lower heat stress. For more on green infrastructure, see our post with the Jane Bacchieri of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services.
With so many benefits, why aren’t more communities implementing green stormwater infrastructure? One reason is that much of a city or county’s footprint is privately owned, and local governments often struggle with how to get individual homeowners or businesses to install green infrastructure on their property. The National Network workshop honed in on the range of stormwater programs that use economic incentives — think credits, rebates, and subsidies — to encourage installation of stormwater controls, including green infrastructure. It was an amazing discussion, and here are the five key things we took home to Portland:
- Effective stormwater management is integrated
Water is often managed in silos, divided by isolated towers, and stormwater is no different. However, the causes, consequences, and remedies for stormwater pollution span wastewater, groundwater, water quality, land-use planning, economic development, and beyond. But, some cities, such as Los Angeles, see this and are treating stormwater as part of a much broader water management issue. The City of L.A.’s staff described developing plans that cross traditional municipal departments, such as land-use planning, sanitation, and municipal water and power, to create a more integrated water-resource-management plan. By working across departments, the City of L.A. is able to implement projects such as green infrastructure that can address multiple problems with one solution.
- One permit, one program, multiple objectives
Most communities initiate a stormwater program in order to meet the regulatory requirements of their Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit. However, there are a host of other factors that affect how the program gets set up that are critical for public acceptance and support from decision-makers. This includes reducing the risk of local flooding, extending the life of existing gray infrastructure, supporting good health outcomes through improved air quality, physical activity, community cohesion associated with access to nature, support for development and growth management strategies, and quality of life for urban residents.
- All politics are local: public outreach and the importance of local values
Stormwater is not top of mind for most homeowners or businesses, so gaining their participation and support means meeting them where they are at and focusing the conversation around how the program addresses their individual needs and promotes shared values. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland’s Rainscapes Rewards program provides homeowners a rebate on green infrastructure projects to capture stormwater on-site. The ultimate goal of the program is to help the county meet its regulatory requirements for Chesapeake Bay clean-up, but the public outreach focuses on helping homeowners and businesses address flooding and other water management issues on their property.
- Terms and categories are important
We cannot learn from each other if we don’t understand each other, therefore, speaking the same language is critical. Participants at the National Network workshop recognized the need for clarity and consistency in the use of common terms related to stormwater management and financing. Establishing this common language allows program managers to communicate with each other in order to understand what strategies and approaches will work for their community and watershed.
- Progress is often non-linear
Those communities using economic incentives to drive stormwater management consistently reported that their programs have changed over time. Cities like Portland and Seattle began by installing and studying demonstration green infrastructure projects, then moved to promote those practices that worked best through rebates, incentives, or updates to their stormwater manual. Other programs reported changing the practices they incentivized or how they marketed the program to the public. Taking the long view and giving the program space to evolve is not the same as planning to fail. It’s just realistic.
Stormwater pollution is not a water quality issue going away anytime soon. For growing communities, this means navigating the MS4 stormwater permitting program, finding ways to finance local programs, and implementing controls across public and private lands. We hope the National Network dialogue we sparked is just the beginning, and we look forward to finding solutions that use watershed processes to meet community needs in a cost effective way, making it faster and easier for others to follow suit.