The Inspiring Side of Infrastructure

by Michael Rogers
Peoria Public Works

How going green can solve more than combined sewer overflows...

Think back to when you last spent time outside in a green space—maybe working in a garden, sitting on a park bench under a tree, or walking through an open field. Did that experience leave you feeling energized? Calmer? Happier?

Studies have shown that green spaces can make a positive impact on our health. They decrease stress, boost moods and provide space for recreation and community building. The City of Peoria feels that creating green spaces downtown is not only good for the wellbeing of its citizens, it is also the solution to an issue that has long plagued our city: combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

When It Rains, It Pours… Into Our River
Do you know what a combined sewer overflow is? If you’re not familiar, brace yourself for a disturbing thought.

The oldest parts of Peoria, located downtown and along the bluffs, have combined sewers, which carry both sanitary wastewater and stormwater (rain and snow). In good weather, they do a fine job of transporting this mix to the Greater Peoria Sanitary District for treatment, but during rain or snowmelt, the influx of stormwater overwhelms the combined sewers. That water has to go somewhere… so it is dumped directly into the Illinois River. This means that untreated sewage—yep, exactly what you think it is—goes straight into our river.

On average, Peoria experiences between 20 and 30 CSOs per year. Not only does this form of pollution pose a health risk to our community, it puts the city in violation of the Clean Water Act. As such, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued an unfunded mandate that Peoria develop a long-term plan to eliminate CSOs. We began addressing the problem as early as the 1970s, and we made progress reducing CSOs in the 1990s, but as regulations increased, these changes weren’t extensive enough.

Negotiations with the EPA are currently ongoing. This is not an issue the city takes lightly. Ending CSOs is a massive undertaking, requiring Peoria to capture about 37 million gallons of rain from a single rainstorm—the equivalent of 60 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of stormwater.

The Destructive Force of Stormwater
CSOs are not Peoria’s only wet weather issue. As the city has grown, so has the amount of impervious surfaces—such as roofs, pavement and sidewalks—which block water from being absorbed naturally into the ground during wet weather. This creates stormwater runoff, which can cause erosion, flooding, wear on our infrastructure and other damage. Due to funding constraints and ongoing development, Peoria has struggled to keep up with the sheer scale of repairs, maintenance and upgrades needed throughout the city.

This is significant, because the problems caused by stormwater can pose a real risk to public safety. Consider, for example, the sinkhole on Allen Road in 2013, which left a gaping hole 20 feet deep.

Peoria must address these issues once and for all, for the safety and wellbeing of our community. We have no choice—the EPA and our rapidly deteriorating infrastructure won’t wait.

 

Returning to Nature’s Way
We may have a major challenge before us, but we also have a major opportunity: Peoria could be the first city in the nation to use a 100-percent green infrastructure solution to resolve CSOs.

Through our work with engineering partners Amec Foster Wheeler, we developed a plan that would use natural techniques to prevent stormwater from entering combined sewers in the first place. Instead of turning to “gray” infrastructure like pipes, tanks or tunnels, Peoria will use cost-effective green infrastructure.

We’re choosing to restore the natural water cycle by using more absorbent materials and creating more green spaces like community gardens and rain gardens, boulevards with natural plantings, and other uses of native plants.

Where Social and Eco Solutions Unite
A green solution doesn’t just help us solve CSOs—it will help us address other issues within the community. Backed by a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant, Peoria’s Innovation Team, or i-team, has been looking at ways to make green infrastructure work harder for Peoria.

“Green infrastructure provides an effective and beneficial means of keeping water out of our combined sewers,” says Anthony Corso, who leads Peoria’s i-team. “Smart design can improve public health and safety, as well as help remedy social issues like crime and unemployment. We’re actively collaborating with other cities to bring best practices in green technology and urban design to Peoria.”

How can green space mitigate crime? Peoria could create landscape designs that maintain sight lines, define public and private spaces, control access and encourage residents to spend time outside, interacting and strengthening neighborhood bonds.

Public safety and health could be improved by using green infrastructure as part of a “complete streets” design. Complete streets consider all users of the road, not just automobiles. Native plant landscaping could provide a buffer between auto traffic and bike or pedestrian traffic. These reimagined streets could be more accessible to people with disabilities and provide safer school routes for children.

In addition, someone will need to install and maintain this green infrastructure, which could provide a boost to small businesses, spurring the local economy. We could create training and educational programs to build workforce capacity for these jobs.

Green infrastructure not only brings solutions together; it also brings people together. It builds community by providing spaces where diverse people can connect, take pride in their neighborhood, and enjoy additional recreational and health benefits. These meaningful improvements add more value to our city than an underground pipe solution ever could.

Investing in Green Solutions
All CSO solutions come with a price tag. Installing green infrastructure is 30-percent more cost-effective than installing gray infrastructure, and will cost the City of Peoria up to $250 million.

The City is proposing a stormwater utility to help fund wet weather issues and maintain or repair aging infrastructure. A portion of the stormwater utility would likely be used to fund green infrastructure, with additional dollars being raised through sewer fees or property taxes. The stormwater utility will be based on the amount of impervious surface area on a property, which affects the amount of water a property contributes to the stormwater system. The average household would pay a monthly stormwater utility bill ranging from $13 to $18.

While no one wants an added fee, this investment would provide a safer, more beautiful Peoria for future generations.

 

One City, OneWater Peoria
In order to educate and empower citizens around these wet weather issues, Peoria has started the OneWater Peoria movement. In 2015, a group of community leaders was asked to serve on the OneWater Committee to weigh in on topics related to combined sewers and stormwater management. The group reached consensus support of both the stormwater utility and the installation of green infrastructure.

Local artist Eileen Leunig served on the OneWater Committee and supported the use of green infrastructure. “We know our children are the future,” she says. “Green solutions make sure that our river and streams are protected for them.” Public Works has been conducting outreach to business and community groups and is willing to meet with anyone who would like to learn more about these topics. We are also working hard to keep the community informed of the ongoing negotiations with the EPA.

We all want to live in a beautiful and safe city. Returning to nature is not only good for our wet weather problem; it’s also good for us. Choosing green solutions will allow us to maximize community benefits and strengthen our bond together. Green lets us keep the solution right where can see and enjoy it. This is our chance to earn national attention for doing right by our environment and our people.

Instead of pavement, let’s choose plants. Instead of gray, let’s go green. And instead of selecting the expected, let’s choose to innovate. iBi

Michael Rogers, PWLF, is the director of Peoria Public Works. To learn more about these issues—and how you can help—visit OneWaterPeoria.com.

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