Philadelphia – Sharing Responsibility for Water

Some of the most prominent examples of successful public-private, public-public and even federal-city partnerships center around one topic in Philadelphia: water.

In Philadelphia, three water treatment plants treat 310 million gallons of water per day, feeding 3,300 miles of water mains, and more than 2,900 miles of sewers service the city.[1] These are the purview of the Philadelphia Water Department and Water Revenue Bureau, which serves “the Greater Philadelphia region by providing integrated water, wastewater and stormwater services. The utility’s primary mission is to plan for, operate and maintain both the infrastructure and the organization necessary to purvey high-quality drinking water; to provide an adequate and reliable water supply for all household, commercial and community needs; and to sustain and enhance the region’s watersheds and quality of life by managing wastewater and stormwater effectively.”[2] Funds from water bills play a role in helping the Water Department accomplish its mission, as every resident helps support stormwater management, wastewater treatment and collection, and drinking water management.[3] In addition, partnerships are a big part of the Water Department’s plans.

“One of the more innovative things in Philadelphia is that the Water Department is partially funding the Parks Department through some staff positions in order to sustain the current natural areas and to educate the public about green infrastructure,” says the Forest Service’s Rodbell. “The Watershed Division in the Water Department has achieved remarkable success in education and collaborative arrangements with other divisions within the government.”

Philadelphia skyline

Credit: Ed Yakovich

With its founding based in watershed health, Fairmount Park has always been deeply involved with and aware of the connection between land and water, but the relationship between the park team and the Water Department shifted gears about 15 years ago, relates Urban Forestry Director Blaustein. She says that a big impetus for the partnership was a large grant that Fairmount Park received in 1998 from the William Penn Foundation to create a master plan for the management of the natural areas in the city. “There had never been a systematic assessment of the natural areas or a plan on how to do restoration,” Blaustein says. “There was no dedicated staff to the natural areas prior to that. At the same time, the Water Department formed the Office of Watersheds, which moved its focus from infrastructure to looking at watersheds as a whole.”

Since much of the Philadelphia’s water flows through the city’s natural land, the resulting partnership was natural. The Water Department funds some of Parks’ positions that focus on watershed work, and “we’ve worked very closely to do projects together to make sure we’re in coordination about where we’re focusing,” adds Blaustein. “We’re moving slowly into stormwater management on park areas that will help the Water Department achieve their goals through their combined sewer overflow long-term control plan.”

That plan is Green City, Clean Waters, a 25-year “infrastructure management program intended to protect and enhance our region’s waterways by managing stormwater runoff to significantly reduce our reliance on construction of additional underground infrastructure.”[4] To accomplish its goals, the plan relies almost exclusively on green infrastructure investments, including a largescale street tree program, conversion of vacant and abandoned lots, restored streams and more. Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is working with the Water Department to develop cost sharing for tree planting in stormwater management pits and to develop maintenance programs for green stormwater infrastructure installations, while urban forest maintenance remains with them. By the time the plan is completed, it’s estimated that more than $3 billion will have been invested “to initiate the largest green stormwater infrastructure program ever envisioned in this country.”[5]

Helping with this investment is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which signed an agreement in April 2012 committing the federal agency to helping ensure Green City, Clean Waters reaches its goals. When the signing of the agreement was announced, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told E&E News, “EPA commits to work with the city to address regulatory barriers to the innovative greening approaches, and [it] will allow us to evaluate and verify the effectiveness of new green techniques. EPA will also work with Philadelphia to ensure the plan is successfully achieving the desired water quality benefits and over time will meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act and other national standards.”[6]

Behind the scenes, this has been an initiative years in the making. The Water Department and PHS partnered to conduct 45 demonstration projects for stormwater remediation for a variety of open spaces, relates Roy. These demonstration projects ranged from streetscapes to community gardens to green roofs. With the EPA’s approval and partnership on Green City, Clean Waters, “it’s now about scaling up to the level where the green infrastructure is actually addressing the stormwater problems,” says Roy. “It’s a very exciting time. There’s a lot going on in the city around design and implementation.”

And all of this activity, partnership, stewardship and innovation might very well fulfill Mayor Nutter’s goal of making Philadelphia the greenest city in the country.

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[1] City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia Water Department. Urban Water Cycle. (accessed Sept. 10, 2012).

[2] City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia Water Department. Our Mission. (accessed Sept. 10, 2012).

[3] Philadelphia Water Department. Proposed Changes in Water, Wastewater and Stormwater Rates and Charges. (accessed Sept. 10, 2012).

[4] Philadelphia Water Department. Amended Green City, Clean Waters Program Summary. (accessed Sept. 10, 2012).

[5] Philadelphia Water Department. Amended Green City, Clean Waters Program Summary. (accessed Sept. 10, 2012).

[6] Quinlan, P. EPA’s Jackson Calls Philly’s Green Infrastructure Plan a “Model” for Other Cities. E&E News [Online] 2012. (accessed Sept. 10, 2012).