KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Just last year, workers in Kansas City replaced the last of the city’s wooden sewer pipes, some constructed prior to the Civil War. But, the infrastructure changes having the most impact on one challenged neighborhood are blossoming above the ground, not buried beneath it.
Green infrastructure is helping alleviate combined sewer overflows, as intended, in the neighborhood where heavy rains often sent raw sewage spilling into the waterways of the Middle Blue River Basin.
But, Jan Marcason, a Kansas City councilmember speaking at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Kansas City, said going green in the basin has created a ripple effect, increasing community pride, a spike in private investment, an increase in property values, and citizens who are more engaged in neighborhood beautification projects and city policymaking.
Marcason said her city plans to spend nearly $4.5 billion over the next two decades to implement its combined sewer overflow control plan, the largest capital project in the city’s history.
In a city that has expanded to more than 320 square miles – eight times the area of San Francisco – Marcason said Kansas City has 1,750 miles of sanitary sewer lines and 1,050 miles of combined sewer lines, which serve 653,000 people in the city and 27 satellite communities. Its seven wastewater treatment plants treat nearly 40 billion gallons of sewage per year.
As in many cities across the nation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is mandating changes to Kansas City’s stormwater management systems to bring combined sewer overflows under control.
Kansas City’s consent decree with the EPA gives the city 25 years to develop systems that will capture and treat 88 percent of combined sewer overflows and eliminate sanitary sewer overflows during a five-year rain event. The region’s clay soil and “torrential” rain patterns make this particularly challenging in Kansas City, Marcason said.
To meet the federal demands, the city’s 25-year plan, beginning in 2010, starts with various green infrastructure projects and postpones the construction of huge underground rainwater detention systems for about 14 years. This buys the city time to extend financing terms and see just how much green infrastructure and other system improvements can reduce the overflows before final decisions are made on the size and scope of the gray infrastructure investments, Marcason said.
She said Kansas City was the first city in the nation to include green infrastructure in an EPA consent decree, and the first to be given 25 years to execute the plan – an extra five years to allow the native plants used in green infrastructure to reach their full potential.
In May of 2011, the city started with an $80 million investment in green infrastructure that included the construction of 64 rain gardens, 30 bio-retention cells, 36 curb extensions, five cascade rain gardens, four permeable paver sidewalks, and 23 porous pavement sidewalks, among other green solutions. Construction was completed in December 2012.
Half of that $80 million investment has gone toward green infrastructure in the Middle Blue River basin, a “challenged” neighborhood that was originally intended to get a $50 million underground stormwater detention facility. “With green solutions, we think we can capture the same amount of rainfall for $40 million,” she said.
Marcason said green infrastructure has four economic advantages over conventional stormwater management techniques:
1) It costs less to construction and implement.
2) It is used as a neighborhood and community development strategy. “We don’t just do pipes,” Marcason said. “We use green infrastructure to improve neighborhoods and do economic development.” She said property values in the Middle Blue River Basin have already gone up, and she credits the green infrastructure for creating a “springboard” to neighborhood beautification efforts and private investment.
3) The strategy creates “green jobs” in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the city. Maintaining green infrastructure requires low-skill labor that is available locally.
4) It makes city operations more efficient. “We’ve really looked at our business processes and have done a lot more integrated planning with our water services department, our public works department and our parks department,” she said. “And that’s saved us money.”
The integrated planning approach used in Kansas City is being offered as a best-practice example by the EPA, as reported last November.
Citizen engagement has also been a key factor in the project’s success, Marcason said.
Kansas City formed the Wet Weather Panel in 2003, a 50-member citizen group that provides input in the overflow control program. A Utility Funding Task Force is another citizen-led initiative that has researched and made recommendations on the level of funding coming from taxes, special assessments, system development charges and other local sources.
Marcason said these groups have pushed for green infrastructure solutions, particularly because very little federal or state funding is available for major gray infrastructure projects. At the same time, Kansas City has initiated a relief program, funded by late-payment fees, to assist low-income rate payers who have trouble paying their ever-increasing utilities bills.
Marcason credits the city’s community outreach and engagement efforts for the fact that a $500 million water and sewer bond referendum passed with 80 percent of the vote in 2005.
“With green infrastructure, we wanted to multiply the spending impact,” she said. “When people are spending that much money, they want to see something for it. When you just put pipes underground, they don’t see where their money is going.”
“We really feel like this will show that green solutions do work and they provide much-needed economic development and increase property values. These results will guide the other phases of the overflow control plan that will follow,” she said.
“The community’s commitment to green infrastructure provides that triple bottom line – social, economic and environmental benefits that make our city a better place to live and work,” Marcason said. “So, we feel like we’ve proven in Kansas City that we can re-think the way we do infrastructure. For us, green infrastructure was a viable solution that not only saved money, but re-built community pride.”