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Sewers at capacity, more need for green spaces

December 3, 2009

A combined sewer, photo by Dan Bennett

An article in the New York Times discusses the current (overwhelmed) situation facing the sewer systems in cities across the country. The increasing lack of greenspace  was brought up a few times as one of the strains on sewers. Parks and other unpaved natural areas serve as the city’s natural “green infrastructure” to help deal with retain stormwater overflow and prevent flooding.

As stated in the article, “as cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.

. . . Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs.”

When natural areas areas are paved over, or when their capcity to absorb stormwater overflow is jeopardized by declining environmental health, the cost of replacing them with built infrastructure can be incredibly expensive, not to mention the spread of illness by sewage overflow. The EPA estimates that as much as $400 billion may be needed over the next decade to fix sewer infrastructure in the U.S.

Trees help keep stormwater from overwhelming sewer systems, photo by Bill Bankson

Some cities are already recognizing the need to bolster existing natural areas in addition to improving sewer systems. “Philadelphia has announced it will spend $1.6 billion over 20 years to build rain gardens and sidewalks of porous pavement and to plant thousands of trees.”

Here in the Puget Sound region, volunteers from all over are helping to ensure that the natural infrustructure in their communities is healthy enough to provide us with vital stormwater retention for generations to come. Check out your local Green City Partnership in Seattle, Tacoma, Kirkland, Redmond, and Kent, to find out how you can get involved.

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