Camden: “We Can’t Widen Our Way Out of This Problem”

By that statement, Camden, New Jersey, officials mean that the city can’t widen its underground stormwater management pipes enough to carry more water and sewage. Instead, the city is taking a new approach, using green infrastructure to manage stormwater while also dealing with its many toxic brownfield sites. According to Frank McLaughlin, New Jersey Department of the Environment, who spoke at the E.P.A.’s Brownfields conference in Atlanta, Camden has found a new way to work, “greening brownfields” for stormwater management. Their brownfield redevelopment projects are all about capturing and using water to grow and maintain green infrastructure. This is a smart way to take advantage of clean water, because once it hits the built environment in Camden, it basically becomes toxic.

Camden, a small city of 77,000, has two Superfund sites (the places the E.P.A. deems the most dangerous to humans and wildlife) and more than 100 toxic brownfields, making it one of the most polluted places in the U.S. Camden became an industrial hub in the early 1900s, but it has lost much of its industrial base by the 1970s. With that loss, population fell. On top of that, the combined stormwater and sewer infrastructure is aging.

Nearby Philadelphia has shown a new way to do things, though, with its bold green infrastructure program. McLaughlin said Camden has taken up some of those ideas but also made their local green infrastructure initiative, Camden Smart, a “collaborative community benefits program.” The program seeks to reduce flooding in residential areas, but really involve the community in the solutions.

Working with the community, Camden Smart has given out 90 water conservation kits, created 19 rain gardens, two rainwater harvesting systems, and planted more than 230 trees. There are also new rain garden and rain barrel installation training sessions. An old gas station that the community really wanted to see gone has become the Waterfront South Rain Garden Park (see image above). About 12 underground storage tanks were taken out along with thousands of tons of contaminated soils. “The diesel sheen on the groundwater was also addressed.” The new park that has gone in with the help of Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program is now filled with native plants and also mitigates street-level flooding and stores 800,000 of stormwater annually. McLaughlin said “landscape architecture is all about integrating stormwater management practices these days.”

Already, this bottom-up-style program has led to the capture of 1.5 million gallons of stormwater annually.

Beyond this program, the city government is also taking on some of the most polluted sites, spending quite a bit of money to turn toxic waterfront drains into environmental resources. Another major project is cleaning up and capping a landfill with “clean, permeable fill.” By the contained vegetation-covered landfill, there will be a new constructed wetland, which together are expected to capture some 25 million gallons of stormwater runoff annually. The city and federal governments, foundations, and the polluters, who have been found and fined, will spend upwards of $100 million to clean up some abandoned toxic sites and restore riparian corridors.

The Metropolitan Sewage District of Cincinnati serves another community that can’t widen its way out of the problem of combined sewage overflows (CSOs). While more than 700 communities have to deal with CSOs each year, Cincinnati has one of the worst problems, spewing 1.5 billion gallons of combined stormwater and sewage overflows into its rivers in just this one area. “This is one of the biggest CSOs in the U.S.,” said Mary Lynn Lodor, Metropolitan Sewage District.

To comply with an E.P.A. consent decree that it clean up its act, the sewage district is creating an ambitious $193 million green infrastructure program in the Lick Run watershed. Just a 5-7-minute car ride from downtown, some 2,700 acres, much of which are brownfields, will become the site of a “designed waterway” and park that will “daylight” the buried Lick Run creek.

The sewage district approached the community with a bunch of different ideas, offering up 150 different photos of all different kinds of green features, asking the community what kind of amenity they wanted. People wanted to see the creek again in a park-like setting. The community “influenced the look and feel of the project.”

The district then worked with a team of landscape architects (local firm Human Nature), and engineers (Strand) to develop a master plan that will create green infrastructure that is attractive and user-friendly and also mitigate the stormwater management problem. “We didn’t want to spend millions on a green infrastructure system that didn’t work, like Milwaukee did,” so the team really did their research. Plans for the newly green area are also expected to lead to additional redevelopment and infill, new trails, and a cultural and recreation center.

The district will use a rate payment increase to pay for the project, but Lodor said the green infrastructure is a lot cheaper than the conventional grey approach. The new functional landscape, which will handle more than 600 million gallons of runoff, is more than $200 million cheaper than the alternative: 30-ft wide pipes running more than one mile underground. To maintain the green infrastructure, the sewage district is partnering with the parks department. “They are doing some of the maintenance work on this because it’s really a park-like amenity.”

Image credit: (1) Waterfront South Rain Garden / Camden Smart, (2) Lick Run Watershed Master Plan / Metropolitan Sewage District of Cincinnati

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