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Water Plan for the Century: Philadelphia’s Breakthrough

Neal Peirce / May 19 2012

For Release Sunday, May 20, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON — Could it be serious — a major American city makes water conservation the linchpin of its 21st-century planning, the ticket to a future that’s both “green” and economically vibrant?

Answer: yes. And that grand old city is Philadelphia. Two centuries past the time it led America in population and power, a quarter-century past a wave of crippling industrial losses, Philadelphia is consciously making water conservation a centerpiece of its economic and environmental strategy — its goal to be the country’s “greenest” city.

Elements of the plan, first conceived in the city’s Office of Watersheds, sound radically less ambitious. The focus is on stopping storm water from flooding drainage systems and sending untreated sewage and debris flowing into local rivers and streams. (Yearly, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated urban runoff flow into the nation’s surface waters.)

To stem its discharges, Philadelphia is intent on filtering out, block by block, the fast, storm-induced runoff of pollutants — litter, oil, antifreeze, pesticides, bacteria from pet waste — that accumulate on concrete and asphalt surfaces, then wash into and pollute streams and rivers.

All this matters in dollars. Federal Clean Water Act rules could have obligated Philadelphia to spend as much as $10 billion for a system of massive tanks and tunnels to hold overflows — the “big engineering” solution many cities are following. By contrast, the cost of Philadelphia’s new water-conserving, storm-mitigating green infrastructure may be as little as $2 billion.

But the benefit may go beyond budget savings, argues Howard Neukrug. He’s the civil servant who started espousing the new conservation strategy in Philadelphia’s Office of Watersheds 14 years ago. Now promoted to water commissioner by Mayor Michael Nutter, Neukrug explains why a smart and conserving water policy can make a crucial difference for his city’s future.

First, it’s a route to environmental and social justice. Poor areas have more than their share, he argues, of streams laden with pollutants, plus buried or neglected waterways that are hard to reach and not very attractive when one does.

So a city assist to “green” and improve those areas, making them accessible, safe and natural, with buried streams revived and more community open space created, is key, Neukrug insists, not just to the city’s environmental sustainability, but to real equity issues: improved safety and physical attractiveness. Such steps, he argues, don’t just create more greenery, save energy and cool the region in an era of global climate change. He contends they will also enable Philadelphia to draw a larger share of residents able to pay their bills — undergirding the city’s economic and environmental sustainability.

Given those goals, Philadelphia has a panoply of strategies to reduce water runoff and improve the landscape. There’s “rainwater harvesting” — barrels homeowners can attach to water downspouts and use later for garden watering. Companion strategies include pushing urban gardening, advocating green roofs and creating nature-friendly master plans for former industrial riverfronts.

Streets are being rebuilt so that storm water typically gets diverted into gravel beds under the rights-of-way and sidewalks, the old inlets and sewer connections preserved to accommodate just the very heaviest downpours.

A start’s been made to install porous street surfaces that absorb water directly; Nutter showed up at one location, remarking later: “I poured a gallon of water on the street and it just disappeared.”

Some 15 parks have been made over with new trees or underground basins to absorb runoff; in alliance with the Trust for Public Land, efforts have begun to transform 500 acres of public land into green play spaces by 2015. Separately, the public schools are being engaged to redeem ugly asphalt-paved schoolyards with greenery — no small matter, notes Neukrug, because removing just 2.5 acres of asphalt and concrete saves 3 million gallons of storm water runoff a year.

Some businesses have objected to Philadelphia’s plan since they’re now being charged for the runoff costs of their paved areas, not just the amounts of fresh water they consume.

But the city’s “Green City, Clean Waters” initiative received approval from Pennsylvania regulators last June, and from the federal Environmental Protection Agency this April. Both agencies were initially suspicious of Philadelphia’s unconventional approach to retrofit nearly 10,000 acres for on-site management rather than a “big pipe” solution.

And in a major report last fall, the Natural Resources Defense Council rated Philadelphia’s green infrastructure solution for storm water the United States’ most comprehensive. (Runners-up included Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, New York and Portland, Ore.)

Next month, Nutter becomes president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors — unquestionably championing his Greenworks program in the process.

Yet as central as mayoral leadership is, it’s heartening to note that a once-obscure city bureaucrat crafted an initiative likely to serve one of America’s great historical cities well through this century.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Posted May 20, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Neal: Great to see this story getting more and more coverage.
    If you want more cases as you track this check out the Quad Cities in IA and IL. River Action started
    a water initiative a long time age. Example of smaller community and citizens taking initiative.

  2. tom e bowers
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    WOW! Thanks for encouraging others to look to nature over expensive man-made solutions.

  3. Posted May 21, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    In 2006, the city decided to dig up a contaminated railyard that covered one of the source spring areas of the Wingohocking. They had a chance to save it and remediate, but now it’s covered with asphalt and town homes. There is a lot of water under there. Homes built on water in this city have a way of sinking. If that ever happens , I hope the city remembers the stream and eventually opens it up and remediate properly.

  4. Posted May 22, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Philadelphia is definitely at the forefront on water issues. Thanks for covering their water plan. The Center for Neighborhood Technology is working with communities in the Great Lakes region to understand their water challenges and address them. It’s called the Smart Water for Smart Regions initiative, and you can learn more about it and get involved here:

  5. Mayraj
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Things seems to be happening in Philadelphia:
    Collective Impact and the Modern City
    Tireless collaboration led to a revamped development process that promises to help revitalize Philadelphia.

  6. Posted March 9, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Great article and many thanks to Philadelphia! We are
    trying to convince our North East Ohio Regional Sewer
    District to follow Philadelphia’s leadership thus saving
    us billions of dollars that many can not afford.