PHILADELPHIA In a sweeping endorsement of Philadelphia's storm water plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded $4 million Tuesday to four area colleges to study the plan.
Approved 21/2 years ago, the $1.6 billion, 20-year project aims to stem the polluted water gushing from sewer overflows during heavy rains by incorporating "green" projects throughout the city.
They range from vegetated roofs and rain gardens that soak up rainwater to porous pavements that let it percolate through.
In essence, the plan takes storm water from belowground pipes that treat the water as a waste to aboveground projects that use it as a resource.
Temple University, Swarthmore College, Villanova University, and the University of Pennsylvania will get $1 million each - and the University of New Hampshire $993,000 - to assess various projects and aspects of the plan, quantify performance, and suggest improvements.
As if the city's sewers were the arteries of a giant medical patient, the schools will be hooking up instruments, logging data, and conducting surveys.
"The issue of urban runoff has been vexing for almost 40 years," said EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, who came to Philadelphia to announce the grants. The city's plan "shows the strongest promise to finding not only a cost-effective approach, but one that is more effective because it mimics the natural hydrology" and is beneficial for communities, Perciasepe said.
Marc Cammarata, director of the Philadelphia Water Department's Office of Watersheds, called the grants "very positive. It's not very often that this substantial an amount of money gets directed toward one city, one effort, like this."
In the 30 months since the plan was approved, hundreds of projects have been completed, putting the department ahead of schedule, he said.
Temple's Jeffrey Featherstone praised the grants as "the first serious foray into scientific research on green infrastructure."
"The maze of pipes below ground is daunting, and isolating impacts of individual and groups of storm water control measures can be complicated," said Featherstone, who directs the Center for Sustainable Communities at the Ambler campus.
Philadelphia has one of the oldest sewer systems in the nation. The research will focus on a 40,000-acre area that has combined sewers, meaning they accept both sewage and storm water.
The problem comes during heavy rains. The system is overwhelmed by storm water, and everything - from raw sewage to road oil - gushes out of overflow pipes into streams and rivers.
Nationwide, the problem of combined sewage overflows affects 31 states and the District of Columbia, according to the EPA, which has estimated that 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and storm water are released into the nation's waterways each year.
Many cities have addressed the problem by building miles-long tunnels, big enough to run a subway car through, that hold the water until it can be pumped out and treated.
Green infrastructure projects not only treat the water in a more natural way, but also add other benefits, officials say. Mini-basins for storm water planted with trees, for instance, beautify neighborhoods, help clean the air, cool the temperature, and increase property values.
Temple will analyze many green projects on its Philadelphia campus and investigate socio-economic issues, including whether real estate values next to green infrastructure rise more than elsewhere.
Villanova's Robert Traver, who has been studying storm water reduction techniques for years at demonstration sites on campus, will evaluate the performance of completed projects so they can develop and design next-generation versions.
"Many cities across the United States and the world are paying attention to the innovative approach that Philadelphia is taking," said Traver, director of the Villanova Center for the Advancement of Sustainability in Engineering. "I expect to learn as much from them as I hope they do from our work."
Swarthmore researchers will put instruments in several areas and quantify performance vs. cost.
Given that the success of the city's plan depends in part on residents and businesses investing in green infrastructure projects, Penn researchers will look at how to motivate them.