When the Pennsylvania General Assembly punted on its latest — and best — chance to inject billions of dollars into an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it left struggling Philadelphians to continue to fend for themselves at a time when they needed help the most. Flushed with nearly $7.5 billion in federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, legislators in Harrisburg chose to stash most of that money away for a rainy day when people are drowning now.
The American Rescue Plan, which dispersed money to state and local governments starting in May, was created to help Americans through a global health and economic crisis and provide a path toward a just and robust recovery. It also provides a unique opportunity to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, prioritize investments in green space, and take dramatic action to increase our resiliency in the face of climate change and the escalating damage wrought by weather events like the remnants of Hurricane Ida. As the General Assembly returns to work in September, it must seize this opportunity to help all Pennsylvanians chart a new path forward — and provide critical funding to green infrastructure projects like the Green City, Clean Waters program.
Approved in 2011, Green City, Clean Waters is the city’s plan to modernize its combined sewer overflow system and reduce the amount of polluted stormwater that enters the Delaware River through the implementation of green stormwater infrastructure, which filters stormwater through plants, soil, and stones before it enters the combined sewer system. This provides valuable time to the city’s system as it can no longer withstand the amount of stormwater runoff that enters the system due to the increase in impervious surface, growth, and development.
Philadelphia has utilized an innovative approach that prioritizes green infrastructure — such as rain gardens, tree trenches, and green roofs — rather than the construction of large tunnels, storage tanks, and wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Traditional upgrades were estimated to cost approximately $10 billion and would have invested little in the local communities that are most impacted.
Green City, Clean Waters is a more cost-effective method to reduce the amount of stress on Philadelphia’s stormwater system due to increased stormwater runoff. Also, it invests in Black and brown neighborhoods that have been historically excluded from opportunities like the one presented by the American Rescue Plan.
Philadelphia was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we saw some things return to normal, it remains clear that we have yet to fully recover, especially with the onset of the delta variant. Unemployment remained stubbornly high. Libraries remained closed. Community pools were closed, and neighbors fought hard to keep each other cool despite limited resources.
Green City, Clean Waters is an impactful program that can help address many of the systemic issues facing Philadelphia’s Black and brown communities due to decades of disinvestment and neglect. Brought on by decades of racist practices like redlining, Black and brown neighborhoods in our city do not have adequate access to green space. As a result, these neighborhoods are suffering the most extreme consequences from increased temperatures due to climate change and the heat island effect.
We can cool temperatures in city neighborhoods by investing in green space. Green stormwater infrastructure will help Philadelphia increase its tree canopy, and Green City, Clean Waters has already been part of this effort for 10 years.
Philadelphia’s green stormwater infrastructure program is exactly the kind of program envisioned by the American Rescue Plan, and that deserves further investment through federal funding. Green City, Clean Waters improves water quality, fortifies our infrastructure, and provides numerous benefits to communities through its ability to create jobs, boost the local economy, reduce crime and blight, and improve public health.
The General Assembly has a unique chance to stimulate a recovery that lifts all Pennsylvanians. It cannot miss this opportunity to prioritize green space, clean water, climate resiliency, and reverse decades of disinvestment from Black and brown communities. Investing in green stormwater infrastructure in Philadelphia will ensure that this opportunity does not go unrealized.
Adam Nagel is a campaign manager for PennFuture, a statewide nonprofit environmental advocacy organization with five offices across Pennsylvania.