Since 1850, Milwaukee has been known for its brewing tradition. Today, Milwaukee is heralded for its innovative management of stormwater in an effort to protect the bedrock of good beer: clean water. Thus Milwaukee was a perfect choice to host the annual Great Lakes Week meeting of over 700 activists, government officials, business and industry leaders, tribal members, sportsmen, and academics who are focused on protecting the Great Lakes. One important conversation during Great Lakes Week was the role private philanthropy can play in helping to scale sustainable stormwater solutions.
A common issue in the Great Lakes community—and the United States more broadly—is the opportunity to use natural resources to better manage stormwater, which is overwhelming the crumbling water infrastructure of cities and towns throughout the Great Lakes basin. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an estimated 10 trillion gallons a year of untreated stormwater runs off roads, rooftops, parking lots, and other impervious surfaces, contaminating drinking water, beaches, and habitat throughout the United States. Meanwhile, stormwater treatment systems are falling apart, and the EPA estimates that the price tag for upgrades will be $100 billion over the next 20 years.
Yet cities around the United States are saving money and revitalizing communities through the use of green infrastructure (also known as stormwater best management practices, or BMPs) for stormwater management. Green infrastructure uses the natural landscape to capture and treat stormwater, rather than divert it to costly “grey infrastructure” systems (i.e., pipes, concrete, and storm drains). Rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens, and other natural systems are dotting urban landscapes. These green infrastructure solutions beautify neighborhoods, reduce the need for costly infrastructure investments, protect human and environmental health, and create jobs.
While funders have made significant investments in adopting green infrastructure, many are wrestling with the challenges of how to scale the field. Funders can start by applying three lessons discussed during Great Lakes Week:
1. Smart stormwater policy can create private investment opportunities. Unlocking private capital can help drive large-scale green infrastructure development. A number of cities around the United States are experimenting with market-based policy incentives for implementing green infrastructure on private property. Philadelphia has taken the lead, offering a credit on stormwater fees to property owners who reduce their runoff. While investing in green infrastructure is not without challenges, the NRDC estimates that the potential market for private investors in green infrastructure in Philadelphia alone is $376 million. Funders and impact investors have taken note, launching new collaborative efforts to design financing mechanisms for green infrastructure, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s RE.invest initiative and the NatLab partnership of the Nature Conservancy, the NRDC, and Eko Asset Management Partners.
2. Green infrastructure is creating workforce development opportunities. Funders can help maximize the economic benefits of green infrastructure by ensuring its large-scale development creates career opportunities for communities in need. Municipalities that have invested in installing green infrastructure are struggling to find workers with the skills necessary to operate and maintain these installations. An industry analysis by Green for All found that many of the jobs generated by green infrastructure investment provide a living wage and have significant career potential. However, the limited availability of green infrastructure training and certification often derails these initiatives and creates additional uncertainty for municipalities and investors. Funders can work with training and certification programs to create on-ramps to careers in water sustainability, and ensure workforce development is a component of green infrastructure planning at the municipal level.
3. Green infrastructure advocates need more compelling messages. Securing both the national and local policies necessary to help scale green infrastructure will require more compelling messages and messengers. Stormwater issues have remained largely absent from the national media spotlight, and locally can elicit opposition from developers, homeowner’s associations, and others. Media campaigns are often bogged down in technical jargon and fail to connect with the communities that benefit most from green infrastructure. Funders can help build the capacity of advocates to better engage with stakeholders around smart stormwater policies (see here for a helpful stormwater messaging toolkit).
Most importantly, funders can learn from the good work being done to address these and other barriers throughout the Great Lakes and in other regions. Given the highly localized nature of stormwater planning and investments, it is important that funders maintain regular opportunities to capture and share information (the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities and the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network each maintain programs focused on stormwater runoff). Protecting clean water will be one of the critical challenges of the 21st century, and green infrastructure provides an opportunity for communities to capture the full environmental, economic, and social benefits of investing in modernizing our stormwater systems.
Ryan Strode is an associate director at Arabella, where he works primarily with family and institutional clients to develop philanthropic strategies around climate change mitigation and adaptation, clean energy, and ecological conservation and restoration. He tweets from @ryanstrode.