Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stormwater: Planning to Fix the Present Crisis Twenty Years from Now

At the behest of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) in its administration of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, the semi-autonomous Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the City itself, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and numerous other so-called partners created a huge, bureaucratic, long-range planning and research apparatus as an appendage to DWSD for the management of stormwater, utilizing green infrastructure.

DWSD is a hopelessly dysfunctional public utility incapable of performing duties as basic as compiling and publishing an annual audit.

The organizers set the bloated apparatus on an interminable journey, a mission impossible, gathering data (some of which is already going stale) and planning to restrain future sewer overflows in the region.

Green infrastructure includes:

  • tree planting
  • roof-top plantings
  • swales and rain gardens
  • porous pavement
  • downspout disconnection from sewers
  • the DWSD plans include demolishing a paltry few abandoned homes and replanting the vacant lots (even though the City itself presently claims to be demolishing 200 vacant buildings per week, independent of DWSD plans).

The goals set were remarkably low.  For example, one project “... depicts opportunities for underground storage and infiltration with an annual runoff reduction of approximately 5.4 million gallons at an estimated cost of $2.7 million.” (p.8)

“...[A]n approximation of the runoff benefits for the tree planting, twenty- five (25) demolitions, ten (10) vacant property treatments and one hundred sixty-five (165) residential lot downspout disconnections is 78,600 gallons. The cumulative runoff reduction estimate for the green infrastructure program to-date is 454,400 gallons.”  (p.10)

Bear in mind that annual polluted overflows can run in the billions of gallons.

The planning apparatchiks conceive of green infrastructure as “... typically designed to manage smaller rain events up to the 2-year; 24-hour event.” (p.10) They calculate that, through the end of their third fiscal year (2013), they have spent $2,518,325 to divert 454,400 gallons or (they say) $6 per gallon. (Table 1, p.10)

To sum it up, DWSD’s green infrastructure activities to date and as planned for the future strike me as (1) redundant of the City of Detroit’s similar, larger, but separate activities; (2) so puny as to be meaningless; and (3) way too expensive in proportion to the benefit.  Well conceived, long-range planning is good, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of present, urgent needs.

MDEQ and DWSD’s successor, the Great Lakes Water Authority, would be wise to re-examine the present green infrastructure project with a view of implementing now inexpensive green solutions on a massive, industrial-like scale.

A good way to begin might be to hydroseed vacant spaces or plant hundreds of thousands of seedlings instead of a few thousand saplings per year (at nearly $200 apiece), one here, one there, as they do at present.


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