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Coronavirus stimulus packages should help green our water infrastructure | Opinion

Urban water systems like Philadelphia's are evolving. Our response to the coronavirus can help push it in the right direction.

A rain garden in Fishtown that prevents stormwater from entering the sewer system. More environmentally friendly stormwater management, to ensure healthier rivers and creeks, is one goal of Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters plan.
A rain garden in Fishtown that prevents stormwater from entering the sewer system. More environmentally friendly stormwater management, to ensure healthier rivers and creeks, is one goal of Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters plan.Read moreFRANK KUMMER/Staff

The COVID-19 crisis is hurting our communities in every way. The investments we make to deal with its immediate and long-term impacts will determine how quickly we recover from the pandemic as well as the economic downturn. Our nation’s water systems are fundamental to both. From the water we drink and wash our hands with, to the systems that manage floodwaters and protect our rivers, it is the foundation of healthy communities and thriving economies.

It is vital that the next phase of federal stimulus and infrastructure legislation include a major investment in clean and green water infrastructure at the local level, including proven local solutions that protect community health and wellness on multiple levels.

Congress is beginning to take action on this issue. The Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 was introduced on April 21 in the Senate on a bipartisan basis, and the House is developing a $760 billion “Moving Forward Framework” for an infrastructure package that could include roughly $75 billion for municipal water resource management. The crucial question is whether we can leverage our needed water investments in ways that will also benefit our families’ health and our communities’ economy. Philly is already proving the answer is yes.

» READ MORE: The secret scourge of climate change? More raw sewage in Philadelphia’s waterways.

Urban water systems are evolving from a more centralized 20th-century approach that focused on conventional large scale water infrastructure, to a more innovative approach that works with nature instead of fighting it. These decentralized strategies, when distributed broadly across communities, protect our waters while also providing a broader array of community benefits. For the 21st century, utilities are leveraging limited dollars to support more resilient water systems that also provide for a more sustainable future.

From green roofs, street trees, and rain gardens, to “smart” water systems that harvest and reuse water, irrigating lawns and farms, there is a growing toolkit of innovative, decentralized technologies that grow local economies while providing a more reliable and resilient supply of clean water.

The next phase of federal stimulus and infrastructure legislation should empower municipal utility investment in clean and green water infrastructure, such as proven local green technologies that protect community health. This is no time to go backward.

» READ MORE: City Council has unique chance to green Philly, starting with infrastructure | Opinion

Proven, innovative water solutions are already working in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. These Green Stormwater Infrastructure solutions do triple duty: they effectively address flooding and pollution, make our communities more enjoyable, and provide good local jobs, from builders to designers to laborers and landscapers.

These solutions are often cheaper, quicker to build, and provide more immediate jobs than bigger “gray” infrastructure projects, so-called because they usually involve concrete and steel. Green infrastructure is also often more equitable, providing benefits like green space, cleaner air, and reduced local flooding to neighborhoods. Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program is providing $4 billion in economic benefits to the community and more than 1,000 jobs per year, according to a study from the Sustainable Business Network.

The pandemic has refocused federal leaders on the vital issue of the nation’s water infrastructure. They should include direct support for public water utilities to invest not only in conventional systems but in green and other decentralized infrastructure solutions at large scale. We also recommend that the next federal stimulus package prioritize other equitable, locally based, and on-site water infrastructure projects, such as lead service line replacement, water conservation, on-site water reuse, data management, and innovative treatment technologies.

Such federal support will secure local water supplies, making our communities resilient in the face of threats like floods and pollution. It will also result in more — and more fairly distributed — public health benefits, creating jobs, revitalizing economic development, and helping to guarantee access to safe, affordable water for everyone. A pandemic is naturally a time of anxiety and even fear. But it also an opportunity to leave outdated ideas behind and look forward to more modern solutions.

Howard Neukrug is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Water Center and the former Philadelphia Water CEO, where he launched the Green Cities, Clean Waters program. Cynthia Koehler is the executive director of the WaterNow Alliance, a national network of urban water utility leaders advancing sustainable water strategies.