The Potential of Green Alleys
I recall standing in awe at the foot of Mount Whitney, the crown of the Sierra Nevada, watching clouds forming off the peaks of Whitney Portal. In the late afternoon sun, its sharp rock formations were analogous to a heat sink using evaporative cooling. Precipitation to the West eventually makes its way into the Pacific Ocean while, to the East, water culminates in the Great Basin. Imagine all the earth traversed, stones tumbled on riverbeds and the water’s slow weave through aquifers. And so, blinded by solar glare from snowy caps and desert browns, I followed the string of mountains, south, to Los Angeles.
Cities, marks of humanity stretching over the epidermis of a planet, are hard, impervious surfaces that disrupt the natural cycle. At the urban scale, in places like Los Angeles, we register notable changes in the microclimate as buildings and streets absorb sunlight throughout the day. They only begin to radiate stored heat into the night sky. Precipitation slips down buildings onto oily and grimy sidewalks and streets. Picking up speed, it seeps through grates, forced into complex stormwater drainage systems. It is then unloaded directly into major bodies of water. As a result, erosion and water contamination are prevalent. The groundwater table lowers and soil no longer slows down and filters out water contaminants.
Porous. Permeable. Pervious. Words that are finally percolating into urban centers as we explore solutions to problems like groundwater recharge and the urban heat-island effect (UHI). Groundwater recharge is the process of water migrating from the surface into the water table. UHI is an abnormal increase in air temperature compared to that of surrounding areas due to retention of heat by urban infrastructure such as buildings and roads.
Artificial drainage methods, once thought to be ideal, interrupt groundwater recharge that once contributed to a given microclimate’s evaporative cycle. The earliest of these—dating back to 3100 BC in the Indus Valley Civilization (now Pakistan and North India)—directed wastewater into drains beneath the civilization’s major streets. Ironically, this ancient system was more effective than many found in modern cities in the same region. Modern methods incorporate geotextiles and perforated plastic pipes into otherwise traditional pipe systems, improving the filtering of soil particles found in runoff.
However, we can reduce or completely eliminate the demand on stormwater systems through use of permeable paving and water-detention methods such as bioswales. With these, we mimic and reestablish the natural process of filtration and end up with cleaner groundwater.
The first of its kind in major U.S. cities—begun in 1999—Seattle’s Street Edge Alternative project exemplifies these methods. By reducing street widths and offering non-curbed sidewalks on one edge, the project reduces impervious surfaces by 18 percent while directing runoff into bioswales and back into the ground. Studies conducted by the University of Washington have shown that the design successfully reduced 98 percent of stormwater runoff during the wet season.
In 2006, Chicago’s Department of Transportation, with its 1,900 miles of impermeable alleyways, spearheaded an effort to reactivate this neglected urban fabric through the Chicago Green Alley Program. The program implements recycled permeable paving, re-graded properly into detention areas through use of bioswales. Appropriately enough, paving consists of recycled concrete aggregate, slag, and tire rubber. (View the Chicago Green Alley Handbook.)
Los Angeles started its own Green Alley Program on 900 miles of alleys in late 2008, inspired by the work of Jennifer Wolch, a professor of geography and director of the Center for Sustainable Cities at the University of Southern California. Similarly, Green Garage of Detroit, an organization led by Tom and Peggy Brennan, began work on a 220-foot section of an alley that will eventually flow into the two-mile Midtown Greenway Project.
Boston Architectural College’s (BAC) Green Alley Project puts Boston on the map alongside other major cities. Don Hunsicker, head of the BAC’s School of Design Studies and the Green Alley project manager, explains why the BAC is pursuing this project. "The BAC is committed not only to teaching sustainable design practices to our students, but also to making our campus more sustainable. The Green Alley Project is one example of that commitment."
The BAC’s Green Alley, a demonstration project of modest proportion sited on the college’s backyard, improves a section of Alley #444, between Boylston Street and Newbury Street. Interestingly, the project’s roots reside on the roof of the main campus building located on 320 Newbury Street. Initial studies of a green roof design for student use and education led Pat Loheed, head of Landscape Architecture, to suggest incorporating a green alley as a holistic top-down approach to stormwater management. The Green Alley Project took off from there with a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for Phase I.
Phase I of the project is scheduled to break ground sometime in spring/summer 2011 on 1,600 square feet of alley space abutting the college’s Boylston Street building. Phase II will take on the complexity of 3,600 square feet of the alley’s thoroughfare, coordinating with neighboring businesses as well as meeting the requirements of city agencies and organizations such as the Architectural Access Board, Public Improvements Commission, the Back Bay Architectural Commission, and the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay.
Improvements will be similar to those found in previous projects throughout the country—replacing the traditional use of asphalt and concrete with a four-foot deep layering of permeable surfaces. These will eventually mediate runoff from future green roofs, ultimately offsetting stormwater loads by replenishing the groundwater table directly. A monitoring well is also in place from which the Groundwater Trust can track changes as a result of these improvements. To showcase these methods and educate the community, informational components will be integrated into the project. The Green Alley and future green-roof projects reflect the BAC’s commitment to improving the future of Boston and its neighborhoods.
The benefits of using recycled permeable paving, with a high albedo (reflectivity), in conjunction with bioswales are numerous. Groundwater recharge is reestablished, cleaner water results, erosion and heat absorption are reduced, and construction and industrial waste find a new purpose. The long-term cost of installing and maintaining a permeable paving system is comparable to that of traditional stormwater drainage.
In concert, these methods have the potential to eliminate the load of stormwater on existing drainage systems while reducing UHI due to asphalt paving that interrupts the natural evapotranspiration cycle. If we reduce the heat stored by paving, we can carry the same effort onto vertical surfaces of buildings and their roofs. This ultimately lowers the peak demands for cooling buildings and reflects a more energy-conscious city plan.
The BAC’s Green Alley Project hopes to persuade us to take larger stock of our underutilized urban fabric, reimagining its purpose and value in the city’s fabric. If we apply this kind of thinking to areas such as alleys and large swaths of parking, we can create a more vibrant and useful resource for our community.
Sharp-eyed readers of ArchitectureBoston may have noticed a discrepancy in the lengths cited by Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, in our “Political Science” interview, and Christopher Swain, who swam the entire river, in our “Other Voices: Boston Harbor” feature. Here are their responses to the editor’s question about the actual length.
Bob Zimmerman (80 miles): The accepted length of the Charles is 80 miles. It’s actually slightly more than that. The accepted headwaters is Echo Lake, a drinking-water source in Hopkinton, which is fed by a small stream issuing from Central Hill in Hopkinton, but Christopher didn’t swim that little stream.
Christopher also swam beyond the New Charles River Dam into the harbor, which historically would have been the mouth of the Charles River at the beginning of its estuary, but with the creation of the dam first in 1908 and then again in 1976, the length of the river was “shortened.” Everything beyond the dam is saltwater, and therefore no longer the river.
Christopher Swain (81 miles): My calculation included the stream from the Central Hill Swamp, which is not swimmable—except perhaps by a frog. I did hike and wade this section, however (as I did every un-swimmable section) and that’s how I got a total of 81 miles.
The New Charles River Dam is, of course, man-made. The mouth of the river—the actual hydromorphological end of the Charles—stretches out underneath the spot now spanned by the Charlestown Bridge. Had I stopped at the NCR Dam, I would not have been able to claim I swam the river’s entire length.
When we try to fit rivers into man-made constructs, we do so in the interest of convenience, not truth. And I believe we do this at our peril.
(But what else would we expect a river swimmer to conclude?)
We all know the tale of the three pigs and their homebuilding projects. Maybe you sang the camp song about the wise man who built his house upon the rock while the foolish man chose a nice sandy beach site. As children, we thus learned the basics about how and where to build. But, as with many lessons taught in childhood, we figured we knew a better way. Architects and engineers are perhaps most susceptible to this pattern — they are, after all, taught how to design their way around any problem.
And so, through a combination of incremental individual decisions and a shared focus on short-term gain, we have sometimes built in places that really make no sense, in ways that defy the greater forces of nature. We drive by them, perhaps we visit them on vacation, and we take advantage of their contributions to today’s economy. We don’t see the big picture.
But Alex MacLean does. From his plane, thousands of feet up, the details recede. Patterns emerge. Folly is revealed. “Mitigation packages” become unimportant. An internationally celebrated photographer, MacLean takes advantage of this rare vantage point, his aesthetic sensibility, and his deep knowledge of environmental issues to promote a better understanding of the American landscape and wise land-use.
The following images are drawn from MacLean’s new book, Over: The American Landscape at the Tipping Point. Even more than his previous books, this collection of photographs has an urgency, focusing on topics such as water use, sea-level rise, waste, automobiles, and electric generation to demonstrate the vulnerability of our built environment and the fragility of the natural environment.
What’s wrong with these pictures? Nothing. They tell you everything you need to know.
It was a classic editor’s dilemma: how to sex up a magazine issue devoted to an important but — let’s admit it — possibly wonky discussion of water, policy, and design.
And then the skies opened.
At this writing, New England has been hit by two storm systems producing record-breaking rainfalls and catastrophic flooding. Boston alone has received 14 inches of rain. Suddenly everyone is a policy expert: television reporters fill newscasts with spot interviews about combined sewer outfalls and FEMA maps. People understand, with painfully earned clarity, the complex relationship between infrastructure and the environment, and the effects on their health and welfare. The questions of where, what, and how we build have rarely seemed so important.
This will undoubtedly prove to be a mixed blessing for those who have been laboring to promote effective water management policy in this region. New Englanders have been famously complacent about the challenges facing this region: gardens grow, water flows from the tap, beaches seem cleaner — what’s to worry about? Plenty, it turns out. But it may be hard to focus attention on concerns such as groundwater recharge or low river flow when YouTube videos of imperilled dams and washed-out roadways are so fresh in our memory.
Focusing public attention is not the only challenge for those who care about water resources, both salt and fresh. The path from science to policy to regulation to implementation was murky enough without the recent controversies and politics associated with climate change. Those who labor in what has been called “Water World” — the dedicated army of environmentalists, scientists, researchers, engineers, planners, and lawyers working in public agencies, universities, think tanks, and nonprofits as well as in the private sector — struggle to promote prudent policy that is often at odds with individual behaviors and interests.
The inevitable result is an omnium-gatherum of regulatory devices administered by international organizations, federal and state agencies, municipal code officials, and volunteer boards. Conflicts abound, good intentions are thwarted. And no one sees this more clearly on a daily basis than architects.
Architects occupy a territory that is at the intersection between water policy and implementation — a territory perhaps better likened to a traffic rotary, with participants moving seemingly in the same direction but actually toward different destinations, with the attendant confusion, stress, and occasional crash. From that vantage point, architects can see that new approaches to wastewater management are often at cross-purposes with communities that have learned to control growth through septic-system regulations. They know that protection of coastal wetlands often conflicts with developers and cash-starved coastal communities hoping to cash in on waterfront access. They hear firsthand that federal and state conservation mandates can lead to consumer frustration with new products and appliances that fail to perform as expected. They witness well-intentioned building owners and developers discouraged by local permitting processes.
One problem is that we are not starting fresh: New Englanders in particular must contend with established building patterns and aging infrastructure. Even a quick glance at a US Geological Survey map of eastern Massachusetts is enough to identify vast tracts that environmental planners today would probably redline. But the Chelsea tank farms occupy what might otherwise be clam flats, homeowners struggle to stabilize their houses on Plum Island despite erosion of the barrier beach, and neighborhoods encroaching on Revere’s Rumney Marsh (recognized as one of the state’s most biologically significant estuaries) thrive even as their foundations settle. These are not situations easily undone.
Since the March floods, the questions of where, what, and how we build have rarely seemed so important.
Similarly, we have inherited political structures that often frustrate reform. Competing jurisdictions can be formidable roadblocks, especially to hybrid solutions that emerge from a more sophisticated understanding of complex systems. A plumbing code that is developed and administered separately from a building code makes little sense in this new world.
A more effective, integrated approach to water resources will someday be implemented, simply because it must. The question is only one of time — and the attendant cost due to waste, inefficiency, and natural calamity.
It’s time to think of stormwater as a natural resource. Low Impact Development (LID) offers an alternative to old drain-and-dispose techniques.
New Englanders do not generally think about water scarcity when they look around. Massachusetts receives about 45 inches of precipitation annually — an abundant water supply by national standards. In fact, people are likely to be concerned about too much water, especially when managing stormwater. Over the last century, as development grew more intensive, both in urban centers and suburban shopping areas, the major stormwater problem was how to get water off surfaces during major storms. It was, essentially, a waste-disposal problem. Accordingly, codes, technologies, and standards of practice all coalesced behind methods of moving stormwater offsite, quickly and in large quantities.
By the 1980s, people began connecting downstream flooding, erosion, and pollution problems with the high volumes of stormwater being flushed off developed landscapes. In response, new codes and regulations were established to reduce “peak flows” during storm events. Artificial ponds and other detention structures were built to temporarily store stormwater during heavy rains and release it at a pace that caused less flooding and erosion and filtered out some of the pollutants. These centralized structures relied on networks of drain pipes to collect the runoff from across the property.
Over the last decade, however, concern has been raised about stormwater’s role in a different problem: some of our rivers, streams, and wetlands are exhibiting new, dangerously low water levels between storms. In the Northeast, groundwater is the critical component of streams that enables them to be perennial (continuing to flow during dry weather). Groundwater is water contained in saturated layers of soil and bedrock below the land surface. Where these saturated layers intersect the surface of the land, water seeps out and either pools on the surface, forming wetlands, or runs downhill, forming streams. The frequent replenishment of groundwater by precipitation (“groundwater recharge”) enables a continual feed to streams (“baseflow”).
However, when forests and fields are replaced with roads, buildings, and parking lots, rain and snow have fewer places to soak into the ground. The proficient flushing of stormwater and meltwater off vast areas of pavement — a point of pride for engineers for decades — is now understood to contribute to a drop in groundwater levels. Hydrologists have long understood this connection, but as it has become clear to a wider audience, the importance of groundwater recharge has come to the fore of Massachusetts water policy. Suddenly, the paradigm of treating stormwater like waste is turned on its head. How do we treat stormwater coming off our built landscapes like the important resource it truly is?
Some answers come from looking back at how stormwater was managed before the emphasis on centralized collection. Picture a rural road — no curbs, no catch basins, no detention ponds. The road is simply crowned to shed water off to the sides, into the trees, shrubs, or grass. In retrospect, we call this, quaintly, “country drainage.” The two factors that make this design effective at groundwater recharge are decentralization and the use of planted areas as stormwater receptacles. Decentralizing the places where stormwater is directed makes maximum use of pervious area for recharge. Plants help keep soils loose, which aids infiltration. As it turns out, soils and plants are at least as good at filtering out pollutants as most structural devices designed for this purpose.
The problem, of course, is that this type of design becomes difficult to duplicate when development intensifies and the ratio of paved to unpaved surface increases significantly. But with some design and engineering ingenuity, these older practices form the underpinnings of a new approach to land development called “Low Impact Development” (LID): minimize the area of impervious surface (through cluster designs, narrower roads, shared parking areas, smaller setbacks); use permeable materials for paving (such as porous asphalt and grass pavers); and use open, decentralized planted drainage instead of curbs, catch basins, and detention ponds.
In greenfield development (conversion of forests or fields to developed use), the LID process begins by characterizing a site’s natural grading, laying out a design that uses existing low-lying planted areas for stormwater collection, and minimizing land disturbance overall. Avoiding soil compaction by heavy construction equipment is particularly important, to retain permeability of the soils. This approach contrasts with the conventional practice of beginning a project by clear-cutting and grading a site down to the known quantity of a flat, blank slate. It also means that LID projects are inherently harder to replicate in cookie-cutter fashion. This can add time and expense in the design phase, but often saves money in infrastructure and materials costs during construction. In redevelopment projects, the LID approach may have to rely more on imported soils, newly planted areas, and conversion of pavement to permeable alternatives in order to increase groundwater recharge.
In both greenfield and redevelopment contexts, studies comparing the cost of LID to conventional approaches attempt to balance the higher costs of design and specialized materials often associated with LID against the higher costs of stormwater infrastructure, land alteration, and overall area of impervious surface often associated with conventional development. A recent study from the US Environmental Protection Agency demonstrated that, project-for-project, the LID approach can usually hold its own from a profit perspective and is frequently a cost advantage for developers. As material availability, design know-how, and consumer awareness about the environmental advantages of LID expand, these cost advantages can be expected to grow.
However, LID developers currently face an additional set of hurdles that, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, can trump these advantages. They often have to factor in increased project costs associated with obtaining waivers from local boards and conducting sometimes extensive engineering studies to demonstrate to local boards and officials the advantages of the LID alternative over the “by-right” approach dictated by codes.
In recognition of the substantial obstacles posed by existing laws and regulations, Massachusetts state government has been working with stakeholders over the last several years to revise state stormwater regulations to promote LID, implement incentives, and fund demonstration projects. Government agencies have also been working with nonprofits and private-sector advocates to develop educational materials and provide technical assistance to local communities interested in becoming more LID-friendly.
Outreach efforts, especially those targeting municipal boards and decision-makers, will remain important, as Massachusetts land-use practices are still primarily determined at the local level. Simultaneously, general education is needed to help shift the public aesthetic away from some of the conventions that have come to characterize typical development, such as large lots and setbacks, wide roads, and extensive curbing.
A recent study demonstrated that the LID approach can usually hold its own from a cost perspective and is frequently a cost advantage for developers.
Perhaps just as important, however, is pursuing answers to some of the outstanding scientific questions about LID — especially those that might refine the message itself. How significant are impervious surfaces compared to other factors contributing to low flows in streams and rivers, such as over-pumping of groundwater wells and structural barriers such as dams? Are there places or conditions that are more and less appropriate for the LID approach? How will various LID techniques function in the extreme climate conditions of New England? And perhaps most importantly, how can we be sure that we are not inadvertently creating new problems as we are fixing the old, much as we discovered with the stormwater management philosophies that drove development through most of the 20th century?
New studies are starting to address some of these questions. For example, a recent state-funded analysis by the Horsley Witten Group (with Bridgewater State College) of the Taunton River watershed found that loss of groundwater recharge due to impervious surfaces accounts for a 4 percent drop in annual baseflow over the entire watershed, but caused up to a 25 percent drop in baseflow for some of the small tributaries surrounded by substantial development. A recent study by the US Geological Survey similarly identified scale as an important factor in the impact of impervious surfaces on streamflow. Using a model to simulate the impacts of extensive implementation of LID throughout the Ipswich River watershed, researchers found that even converting half of the impervious surface runoff from all developed areas of the watershed back into soil infiltration would not appreciably improve flows in the river and large tributaries. However, they found that LID could significantly improve flow in small streams in the immediate vicinity of development.
Meanwhile, new research from the University of New Hampshire Stormwater Center has reduced concerns about the effects of cold climate conditions by monitoring a variety of LID features, including porous asphalt, at a demonstration site in Durham, New Hampshire over several winters of freeze-thaw conditions, conventional road sanding/salting regimes, and normal wear-and-tear. Other studies are looking at pollutant removal rates, infiltration rates, groundwater quality impacts, and the effects of varying levels of maintenance.
Paradigm shifts are slow, but momentum is a big factor. As LID starts to enter the mainstream consciousness, the ideas will gain increasing traction and in turn be tested by time, research, and practice — a case study in science shaping politics and policy.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2007, Reducing Stormwater Costs through Low Impact Development (LID) Strategies and Practices, EPA 841-F-07-006. http://www.epa.gov/owow/nps/lid/costs07/
2 Horsley Witten Group, Inc. (forthcoming, 2010). Taunton River Watershed Management Plan – Phase II: Implementation and Demonstration. Under contract to Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, MA with funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. http://www.horsleywitten.com/tauntonwatershed.
3 Zimmerman, M. J., Barbaro, J. R., Sorenson, J. R., and Waldron, M. C., 2010, Effects of Selected Low Impact Development Techniques on Water Quality and Quantity in the Ipswich River Basin, Massachusetts: Field and Modeling Studies, U. S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report, 2010-5007.
4 Roseen, R. M., et al., 2009, Seasonal Performance Variations for Storm-Water Management Systems in Cold Climate Conditions, Journal of Environmental Engineering. 135:3(128).
In 2004, I swam the entire length of the Charles River. After snaking through 81 miles of discarded appliances, algae blooms, and bedroom towns, I rode the ebb tide into one of the most storied pieces of water on the East Coast: Boston Harbor.
I stroked under the Charlestown Bridge and toward Puopolo Playground in the North End. A light rain peppered the surface of the water. As I sloshed along, a cocktail of urban runoff slid from the streets into the waves around me. I tasted plastic, mud, gasoline, dog poop, and detergent. As a bonus, thousands of gallons of stormwater laced with untreated sewage belched out of Wet Weather Sewerage Discharge Outfall #203 and into the harbor, compliments of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
I thrashed through a stew of pathogens to the finish. Millions of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, as well as assorted viruses and protozoans, vied to get into my mouth, eyes, and nose, take up residence, reproduce, and make me sick.
I climbed out of the water, gargled with hydrogen peroxide, and thought, I’ll never swim in Boston Harbor again.
Of course, I was wrong.
Five short years later, I carved a big, wet turn around Deer Island and headed for the Boston skyline in one of the early segments of a 1,500-mile swim down the East Coast to Washington, DC. As I turned to breathe, I caught glimpses of the sludge digesters at the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant — a vine of fat white melons fed by the collective toilet flushes of 43 Greater Boston communities.
My mind said Boston Harbor was cleaner than it had been during my last visit. But as I threaded my way between bouquets of seaweed and trash, I knew in my heart there was still plenty of work to be done. Since my Charles River swim, I had upped the ante. In addition to photographing trash and combined sewer outfalls, I had spent my weekends arranging beach cleanups and hosting ethical electronics recycling events designed to keep toxic chemicals and heavy metals out of coastal waterways.
While I swam — on any given day I spend three to five hours in the water — my escort-boat crew tested the surface water temperature and pH of the ocean every 15 minutes to measure and map climate-change effects. At night, I stayed up too late embedding that water sampling data into publicly searchable online maps, in order to give the 50,000 students following my swim a glimpse of what was happening to their ocean planet.
Our findings, while not surprising, were not reassuring. For instance, sea surface temperatures were at or near historic highs. Good news for timid swimmers, but bad news if a hurricane arrived and gained energy from the warmer water.
When we tested the pH of Boston Harbor, we recorded values that were consistently below 8 — evidence of the ocean’s absorption of man-made carbon dioxide. Before the Industrial Revolution, when man-made CO2 was first released into our atmosphere in great quantities, the pH of the ocean was 8.179. Since then, the pH of the ocean has fallen to 8. (If it falls much further, the marine web of life as we know it will collapse.)
While this scientific news may be fascinating, it is not exactly inspiring. So the question remains: why am I out there, slogging through the darkening seas, dodging plastic trash and fuel slicks?
Part of the reason, of course, is that I hope to strike a spark in the minds of the 50,000 schoolchildren I will meet during my journey. And another part is that I hope our 5,000 water samples will help contribute to the body of knowledge needed to find a solution to the climate crisis.
But the real reason is a selfish one: I have two young daughters. Someday, they are going to look into my eyes and say, “Dad, you knew the ocean was a mess. What did you do about it?”
The law is the law.
Play by the rules.
You can’t fight city hall.
We tend to think of the legislation, regulations, codes, and policies that govern our lives as a kind of political accretion, each new rule layered onto an increasingly formidable reef of legal hazards. But “codify” does not necessarily mean “ossify.” These regulations are subject to review and change.
Like the men and women who devise them, political interventions are usually well-intended, often smart, and yet frequently flawed. Those addressing water issues are subject to the inconstancies of political and business interests, new technology and scientific advancement, as well as consumer markets and human behavior.
Here then is an update on some significant regulations. Some are successes. Some are works in progress. As for some…well, mistakes were made.
Section 10.14.3 of the Massachusetts Uniform State Plumbing Code
In 1988, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to require new toilet fixtures to consume no more than 1.6 gallons per flush. Though one of our state’s lesser-known historic achievements, this amendment to the state plumbing code shaped a new standard in water efficiency. With support from Massachusetts Representative Chester Atkins, the 1.6 gpf requirement was incorporated into the national Energy Policy Act of 1992, and municipalities across the country awoke to the cost benefits of replacing inefficient fixtures. (Reducing water
use conserves energy as well as water; the treatment and transport of water in the US currently amounts to 56 billion kilowatt-hours annually.)
The idea of adopting a 1.6 gpf standard in Massachusetts was introduced by Amy Vickers. An engineer in her late twenties with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, she joined the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority after a frustrating period in New York City, where shortsighted politicians showed more interest in increasing supply than in reducing demand. Having seen a similar standard adopted successfully at a smaller scale in Glendale, Arizona, Vickers was confident that low-flow fixtures, together with the MWRA’s plans for infrastructure repairs and extensive public outreach, could halt the alarmingly steady rise of water demands.
Results were immediate and long-lasting: demand fell below 1970s levels in just three years, and continues to decrease steadily — even with more communities added to the MWRA district — as fixtures are replaced, infrastructure is repaired and upgraded, and industrial water use is diminished. Today, the MWRA reports total annual water system demands that are just two-thirds of what they were two decades ago, with water consumption in Boston down to 1910 levels.
Conservation and efficiency policies are now recognized as astute actions in a fight against rising demand. Last year, Texas and California addressed looming water crises by mandating the use of high-efficiency toilets (HETs) designed for a flush equivalent to 1.28 gallons. Engineers Bill Gauley and John Koeller have conducted tests demonstrating that many HET fixtures are capable of superior performance, though a newly formed plumbing research group is still assessing whether codes for horizontal drainage piping should be reconsidered.
Gauley and Koeller, “mythbusters” in the field of water efficiency, are also trying to eradicate confusion about the impact of automatic sensors perpetuated by published estimates of gallons saved by installing “automatic, low-flow” fixtures. A recent study logged the increase in water use associated with sensor-operated toilet fixtures at 66 percent. (Aside from wasting water, the “phantom flush” is also known to terrify small children.) Comparison of 1.8 gpm (gallons per minute) manual faucets with 1.2 gpm sensor faucets revealed a 30 percent increase in water consumption with sensors. Because water only comes out at the faucet’s maximum flow rate, which is not typical user behavior, sensor-operated and metered faucets are inherently inefficient.
Similarly, while showerheads with flow rates higher than now permitted by code may facilitate slightly briefer showers, the net result is elevated water consumption. To address lingering issues with user satisfaction, the EPA’s WaterSense label will soon evaluate showerheads based on performance standards. Apart from specifying a flow rate of 2.0 gpm or less (compared to the standard rate of 2.5 gpm at 80 psi), the program will set standards for spray force, spray coverage, and flow rate across a range of pressures.
But a focus on fixtures can only go so far. Municipalities seeking a broad reduction in water use, indoors and out, are now providing audits and adopting tiered-rate programs based on calculations of anticipated needs. Assigning individual responsibility offers a strong incentive to conserve.
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
Interim Guidelines on Reclaimed Water (2000)
When it comes to renewable resources, water could be the poster child for recycling. Through a perpetual round of condensation, precipitation, infiltration, and evaporation, H2O is endlessly renewed and made available again for our use. And use it we do, second only to oxygen as a ubiquitous resource that we take for granted as a basic entitlement.
Our experience and conditioning conspire to convince that water comes in two categories: clean or dirty, fresh or foul, pure or polluted. This prejudice is a costly one, resulting in the use of highest-quality H2O for flushing toilets and watering the lawn, and countless gallons of additional wastewater diverted from watersheds to expensive treatment facilities. But what is perhaps the simplest strategy for changing this behavior — the reuse of water for non-potable purposes — may be the most controversial.
It is not a new idea. The 18th-century Yin Yu Tang house, built in southeastern China and now on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, diverts all roof runoff to cisterns in the courtyard so that it can be used for domestic purposes. Currently an estimated 20 percent of the world’s agriculture is produced with reused raw wastewater. Yet in the US, the approved use of “gray water,” as the more lightly polluted form of used water is described, is sporadic at best, although the International Plumbing Code now allows it for toilets and underground irrigation.
Here in Massachusetts, old habits are giving way to new behaviors. Interim Guidelines established in 2000 by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) allowed water reuse for irrigation of golf courses and commercial nurseries (for non-food crops); recharging of certain stressed aquifers; and toilet flushing in commercial buildings.
Following the successful implementation of the Interim Guidelines, the state issued new regulations in March 2009 — 314 CMR 20.00 — which established a reclaimed-water permit program overseen by DEP for the uses that had been outlined in the Interim Guidelines. The Massachusetts Plumbing Board has responded to the new regulations by allowing gray-water systems under specific conditions, including: required board approval, devices to prevent contamination of potable water by the gray-water system, identification and labeling to prevent visual confusion of the systems (gray-water piping must be painted purple), and identification of gray water itself through the addition of a non-toxic blue dye.
These incremental steps will likely soon lead to routine water reuse, perhaps eventually extending to residential and agricultural applications. In combination with efforts to limit stormwater runoff by reducing impervious surfaces and installing constructed wetlands, these practices may amount to more than just a drop in the bucket toward maintaining our water resources and protecting critical habitat.
Arizona’s Groundwater Management Act of 1980
Back in the 1970s, a number of people in Arizona became very concerned about water. It wasn’t just that the growth patterns at the time were draining the ancient aquifers under the desert. The population projections foretold even more water use, with no additional supply in sight, unless usage was tightened. Facing up to this dead-end scenario prompted passage of the Groundwater Management Act of 1980, heralded as a state-of-the-art approach in identifying water supplies and requiring conservation that would head off groundwater overdraft and ensure a “safe yield” through 2025 — in other words, to make sure the place didn’t run dry.
Although New Englanders might question the wisdom of so much expansive growth in the middle of a desert in the first place, Arizona’s experience tackling water-resources management holds some valuable lessons for this, and indeed any, region. Recent critiques suggest that it’s necessary to be continually vigilant through the boom and bust of economic cycles. Being prudent with water requires not only regulatory action, but also a cultural transformation by both consumers and developers, who now have many more tools to make conservation part of their building plans.
Water and human settlement go hand-in-hand everywhere in the world, but especially so in Arizona. Snowpack from the state’s mountains feeds into four rivers, but that water quickly evaporates in the desert, which only gets 8 to 14 inches of rainfall a year (New England receives 35–55 inches of precipitation). Early settlement relied on pumping water out of the underground aquifers, and irrigation canals and projects like the Roosevelt Dam, 80 miles east of Phoenix. The state also engaged in an ongoing brawl with California over rights to water from the Colorado River. Through the 1960s and ’70s, sprawling development patterns required more water from aquifers than could possibly be restored, and more from dams and rivers. Following the $4 billion Central Arizona Project Canal, which delivered water from the Colorado, state leaders, led by then-governor Bruce Babbitt, began to focus on the demand side — namely, the 1980 legislation restricting the amount of groundwater that could be used. The statute led to the creation of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, charged with monitoring “withdrawals” and conservation targets for agricultural, municipal, and industrial users, and enforcing the mandate that new subdivisions have future renewable supplies of water.
What followed next is a cautionary tale for New England policymakers. The quest for loopholes was almost immediate. Farmers, for example, could take land out of production and bank or trade their water rights. Some complained that the baseline for water use was too low, and restrictions phased in too slowly. It was not clear how violations would be penalized, which undermined the authority and intention of the regulations. Municipalities received funding for conservation programs regardless of how much water they actually saved. A requirement that new development show a 100-year water supply was significantly altered due to pressure from real-estate interests and the development community. “The conservation goals of the law have been systematically weakened by legislative amendments, consumer resistance, and timorous regulators,” writes Arizona State University professor Paul Hirt in the July 2008 issue of Environmental History. A sustainable future water supply, he says, is “a mirage.”
Jim Holway, director of Western Lands and Communities, a joint venture of the Sonoran Institute and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, sees things more optimistically. “We have three decades of experience in comprehensive water management programs, in the face of limited and highly variable water supplies and changing demands,” he says. The 1980 law has been augmented with requirements for an assured water supply for growth, groundwater recharge projects, banking water underground for future shortages, and the reuse of treated wastewater. The state is now turning to the next big curve ball — the inevitable impacts of climate change.
Success means an evolutionary process, says Holway, who was formerly assistant director at the Department of Water Resources. That includes identifying issues as they come up, measuring and reporting water use to facilitate planning, and quantifying water rights and permits to provide incentives for conservation. Only by managing all sources of water — groundwater, surface water, reclaimed wastewater, and stormwater — can a place like Arizona avoid going dry.
Chapter 91, the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act
The year 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s regulations implementing Chapter 91, the Public Waterfront Act. Since 1990, much has been learned, and it is instructive to take a look at the successes and shortcomings of the program as originally envisioned. The Chapter 91 program is unique in that it is based on the Colonial Ordinances enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641-1647 that defined the property rights of private landowners and the public along the shoreline and in the waterways. The Colonial Ordinances granted upland landowners title to private tidelands, the area between the high- and low-water marks, but reserved for the public the rights of fishing, fowling, and navigation in this intertidal area and retained full public ownership for Commonwealth tidelands, the areas seaward of the low- water mark. The impetus for the Colonial Ordinances was the unwillingness of the King of England to invest in the new colony by building public piers and docks. To spur private investment and support trade with other countries, the colony needed to allow the construction of private docks and piers. The ordinances granted the ownership rights necessary to allow private investors to construct the required infrastructure.
The evolution of this original concept into today’s Chapter 91 program is an interesting one. The early docks and piers constructed in the colony were authorized by special acts of the legislature, which granted very broad rights to fill and occupy flats, extend piers and docks, and carry out business activities. As more of the waterfront became developed for shipping and commerce and conflicts grew over rights of navigational access, the legislature in 1866 decided to create a Board of Harbor Commissioners to approve requests for waterfront construction, rather than having each project separately authorized by the legislature. This act was eventually codified into the General Laws as Chapter 91. Through various Supreme Court opinions and decisions in the 1980s, the legislature was encouraged to develop a more comprehensive scheme for the regulation of work in tidelands and to extend the review to areas of filled tidelands, not just currently flowed tidelands. The legislature responded by enacting landmark legislation in 1983 that expanded the protections for public rights in tidelands and resulted, after years of stakeholder negotiation and public input, in the 1990 Chapter 91 regulations.
Fundamentally, the pioneering Chapter 91 regulations combined aspects of real estate, zoning, and environmental concerns into a single program with nearly 100 pages of regulations. The regulations required waterfront projects to demonstrate they would produce greater benefit than detriment to the public‘s underlying rights in Commonwealth and private tidelands. Traditional zoning concepts affecting land use, height, setbacks, and open space requirements were incorporated to ensure appropriate scale of development. Standards were developed to preserve and protect the environment, including minimizing the placement of fill in tidal waters.
The original Colonial Ordinance continued under the new regulations, but for projects not involving maritime uses, a tradeoff was made, requiring public uses and public access to the waterfront. Up until the mid 1980s, public access to most urban waterfronts was very limited. In the mid-1970s, when the first wave of redevelopment of urban waterfronts for residential use began, many of the piers and wharves were gated off from public access. The greatest success of the Chapter 91 program has been to demonstrate the value of opening these previously inaccessible waterfront areas for the enjoyment of the public. Real estate developers have become some of the strongest advocates for public access by recognizing the inherent value of an active, public waterfront.
While the creation of public access has been a resounding success, the development of public uses along the waterfront has had a mixed track record. The Chapter 91 regulations require that Facilities of Public Accommodations (FPAs) be located on the ground floor of buildings that are within 100 feet of the shoreline; buildings on Commonwealth tidelands must dedicate the entire ground floor to FPAs (allowances are made for lobbies and elevators supporting upper floors). The definition of FPAs encompasses retail, restaurant, and hotel uses, along with other public uses such as museums, art galleries, and cultural institutions. These public-use requirements were based in part on the early work of the City of Boston in developing its Harborpark zoning. The City developed the idea of requiring at least one public use in each waterfront project in order to guarantee that public access would be achieved without an actual taking of private rights. Essentially, if there was a public use at the end of the pier, then no one could stop the public from going out onto the pier.
The Chapter 91 framers expanded this initial concept to require that most or all of the ground floor of waterfront buildings be public. But, with the exception of hotel projects, most waterfront developers have been unable to achieve full compliance. This is particularly true for lower-density projects and projects in residential areas. Urban planners have learned that public uses cannot succeed everywhere, but are more likely to be successful when concentrated around public squares and in retail districts where there is high pedestrian and vehicular traffic and a lot of density. Waterfronts, however, have four inherent disadvantages in attracting public uses: the public can be drawn from only 50 percent of the surrounding area as compared to city squares, since one half of the nearby area is the harbor itself; parking is strongly discouraged and expensive because it must be built below grade; there is virtually no pass-by traffic; and density is limited by Chapter 91 building height and open space requirements. In light of these constraints, it is not surprising that the vision of interior FPAs has not been successfully realized – particularly in areas like the Charlestown Navy Yard and similar residential areas. In these areas, the ground floors of buildings have been vacant for long periods of time due to a lack of market demand. Nothing is more detrimental to public use and enjoyment of the waterfront than vacant storefronts. Even Rowes Wharf, the model of waterfront development and public programming of open spaces, has been unable to fully develop its ground floor with public uses. It is nevertheless perceived as one of the most public of waterfront locations.
So what is the fix? Waterfronts can never overcome the obstacles presented by their location at the “edge” rather than at the center. We must carefully consider what is realistic given the nature of urban waterfronts, particularly in residential neighborhoods. Let’s look to some recent urban-planning concepts that could be applied to the waterfront. New Urbanists have promoted traditional village centers, walkable communities, and great public streets. They have demonstrated that proper attention to design can create great streets that feel public, even in exclusively residential areas. Form-based codes have shifted the focus toward the “feel” of the architecture and the place, and away from regulating specific land uses. With proper scale and massing and attention to streetscape, the actual use on the ground floor can change over time in response to market conditions, without affecting the “public feel” of the neighborhood. These planning concepts move us away from the traditional zoning standards that were the underpinnings of the Chapter 91 regulations. We need to rethink what will work along the waterfront, given its unique attributes. We especially need to understand that public ground-floor uses are less important to the success of a waterfront project than the public use of the exterior spaces, and that a street or a harborwalk can feel very public, even if it abuts private ground-floor uses.
In an active, ever-changing urban environment, 20 years is a long time to go without rethinking the rules. It is time to take a fresh look and consider whether there are better solutions.
The Boston Groundwater Conservation Overlay District
Boston Zoning Code Article 32
Many Bostonians became aware of the danger that lurked below only during the early 1980s, when a church and other buildings on the flat of Beacon Hill began to crack because low groundwater levels had destabilized their foundations.
Groundwater continues to be a challenge in Boston and elsewhere, as levels fall below the tops of the wood piles that support buildings, allowing the wood to rot and threatening the structural integrity of what is above ground. And efforts are growing, both in kind and geographically, to address the issue.
In 1986, in response to the apparent crisis, the Boston City Council created the Boston Groundwater Trust. Revived by Mayor Tom Menino in 1997, the Trust monitors groundwater levels and recommends solutions — a mandate strengthened by the adoption in 2006 of Article 32, creating Boston’s Groundwater Conservation Overlay District (GCOD). The district extends from the Fenway through the South End, Back Bay, and Chinatown, skipping over downtown’s terra firma but including smaller districts encircling downtown, such as the Bulfinch Triangle, the wharf areas along Commercial Street in the North End, and the Fort Point Channel area.
The GCOD is a success, according to Elliott Laffer, executive director of the Boston Groundwater Trust. Its regulations apply to excavation-related construction and to rehabilitation or expansion (of any structure) of an area greater than 50 square feet. It requires a study to determine the effect on area groundwater, and installation of a recharge system. A homeowner in the Back Bay doing a gut rehab, for example, has to capture the equivalent of roof water from a one-inch rain and drain that water back into the ground. Complying with Article 32 typically costs several thousand dollars — compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it can cost to replace the tops of rotted piles and restore a foundation. Since the creation of the GCOD, more than 150 cases have been through the Zoning Board of Appeals, which issues permits, and there has been almost 100 percent compliance. Laffer also reports that a new, ongoing study by Tufts University researchers has found that the recharge wells installed since 2006 have resulted in a small but measurable improvement, which will increase as more wells are put in.
Apparent success has spawned ambitious imitation. Legislation was filed during the last session on Beacon Hill with the intention of protecting similarly endangered buildings elsewhere in the Commonwealth. But, because of the potentially enormous cost of remedies and uncertainty about where and to what extent the problem exists outside Boston, that legislative proposal will be rewritten and filed in the next session, according to one of the sponsors, Democratic State Representative Marty Walz of the Back Bay. The legislation included a provision for tax credits for homeowners who install recharge systems, assistance that will now be provided under another bill, filed on behalf of the City of Boston. It also would have required that governmental bodies remedy groundwater depletion caused by tunnels and other infrastructure under their control, an unrealistic demand in today’s fiscally challenged economic environment.
Some infrastructure repairs are already under way. The Boston Water and Sewer Commission has had an inspection and replacement program for several years to address the problem of broken sewer pipes that drain groundwater out from under neighborhoods along with sewage. A recharge system was installed in the Fenway, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority is currently replacing pipes in East Boston.
A central element of the proposed statewide legislation is regulations on sump pumps, Walz said, to keep water that is pumped out of structures from going into the sewer or storm overflow system and to direct it to replenishment of the groundwater table instead. “The goal is preventing groundwater depletion,” she said, adding that the GCOD in Boston is good but doesn’t go far enough. “We’ve got to get government to repair infrastructure.”
They’re from FEMA and they’re here to help. Really.
In 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, perhaps best known for its response to the New Orleans floods of 2005, began remapping flood plains nationwide, digitizing and updating elevational data that had remained on government maps since the 1970s, and generating new data for densely populated and high-risk areas. This large-scale government effort has several aims: to determine what properties should carry flood insurance, to produce more-accurate assessment tools for flood hazard, to create maps that can be tied to GIS databases and used as planning tools, and, at its core, to guide future development away from high-risk or environmentally sensitive areas.
As the new maps have been released over the past year, they have had sometimes dire financial and design consequences for landowners, developers, and municipalities. Being in a flood zone increases construction and insurance costs substantially, and residents and business owners in a flood zone, whether it is classified as high risk or not, are required to buy flood insurance if they have a federally backed mortgage. Government officials take the maps into account when they establish zoning and building standards, plan infrastructure and transportation, and prepare for and respond to floods. In Massachusetts, about 50,000 properties carry flood insurance, a strong indicator of the number in flood zones.
At their best, the new digital maps factor in topography, hydrology, erosion, and changes in population density, but they ignore climate-change projections. Flood-prone areas are generally defined by one of two hazard levels: 1-percent-annual-chance flood (also known as the 100-year flood) areas and 0.2-percent-annual-chance flood (also known as the 500-year flood) areas. FEMA defines a flood as a condition where two or more acres of normally dry land or two or more properties are inundated by water or mudflow. The previous paper maps were often based on 1960s- and 1970s-era US Geological Survey 10- and 20-foot-interval contour maps, with additional surveying by engineers performed only in those areas historically known to be flood prone.
The maps do not become official until the public-appeal periods expire and FEMA releases them in their final form, but their impact already is being felt across the Commonwealth even in this preliminary phase. For any new construction or substantial improvement (work totaling more than 50 percent of the purchase value of the property), developers or owners are required to build to current flood-zone standards, which usually means raising the lowest level to above the flood level. In Hull, a builder renovating an old rooming house was told that, in order to go forward with the work, he would have to elevate the house by 3 feet and place it on piers. In Provincetown, an estimated 600 properties, including the Town Hall, are being reclassified. In the Alewife area of Cambridge, more than 100 properties have been newly determined to be in a flood plain. In Newburyport and Salisbury, hundreds of properties on both sides of the Merrimack River are affected, and town officials are challenging the FEMA flood map designation. The maps have gone into effect in Suffolk and Bristol counties, and about 80 homes in the Savin Hall neighborhood of Dorchester are now officially in a flood plain.
The impact of the new flood plain maps is already being felt across the Commonwealth.
Following the law of unintended consequences, even structures intended to prevent flooding can subject nearby property owners to FEMA scrutiny. Dams, levees, dikes, and hurricane barriers need to be certified as meeting federal standards. Without this certification, properties adjacent to these public works are officially considered flood prone. In Chicopee, a 7-mile-long riverfront levee system protects the town from floods, but it has to be repaired and recertified by FEMA, at a cost of roughly $6 million, or approximately 5,000 properties will be classified as being in a flood plain. New Bedford’s hurricane barrier, a 3.5-mile-long steel and stone structure from 1966, will have to be recertified as well, and city officials are struggling with how to pay for the necessary engineering studies and recertification of the hurricane barrier. (Similarly, in parts of New Orleans, map certification will be delayed until 2011 due to the ongoing levee reconstruction project.)
As FEMA’s Mike Goetz, chief of New England Risk Analysis Branch, explained, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), of which FEMA flood maps are an integral and necessary part, “tries to make risk management and assessment a part of the everyday life and calculus of communities.” The program, established in 1968, encourages communities to exceed the minimum requirements for flood plain management — building at higher elevations and buying up properties in high-risk areas to create open space. Towns and cities can participate in the NFIP’s voluntary Community Rating System and earn points that reduce their flood insurance premiums. Goetz described its intentions: “We are trying to incentivize communities and show that doing these good things can actually not only improve the environment, but also that those who have to purchase flood insurance won’t be hit as hard financially.” Richard Zingarelli, the NFIP Coordinator of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, commented, “The flood insurance program does not want to burden homeowners, but we don’t want someone to take a summer cottage on a barrier island and turn it into a mansion.”
Thus far, FEMA mapping methods have not been without controversy. At this time, 92 percent of the US has been mapped by the agency, but only 21 percent of the country has maps that fully meet FEMA’s own data quality standards, according to a recent report from the National Research Council. The report, which the Research Council produced at the request of FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, argued that the agency could more accurately determine flood risk with newer mapping technologies such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which measures elevation using aircraft-mounted lasers. Even more significantly, it noted that the maps must be continually updated to reflect natural and development-related changes.
The findings of the National Research Council point to a larger issue lurking in the muddy waters of the $1 billion FEMA project. Flood plains are dynamic entities, constantly shifting, with every new development producing runoff and erosion capable of impacting rivers and streams for many miles downstream. Just as the original FEMA flood maps of the 1970s were intended to be revised regularly but instead were left in place for 30 years due to the exorbitant cost of sustaining a massive, ongoing, nationwide mapping project, the new maps — already less accurate than they could be due to the reuse of outdated maps — will become increasingly inaccurate as time goes by. According to Zingarelli, “The intent is for the mapping to be a continual, ongoing process,” but this depends on funding from Congress. The maps’ inaccuracy over time will be accelerated by climate change, as sea-level rise (which some current predictions put at 6 feet by the end of this century) will affect not only shoreline sea levels, but also inland river and stream beds and hurricane frequency and severity.
To address these issues, FEMA has launched the next phase of its mapping project: Risk MAP (Mapping, Assessment, and Planning). It has begun to use LIDAR in coastal areas and along rivers and levees to produce more accurate maps, and now has fairly extensive data for parts of New England. As Goetz explained, “Risk MAP is being used to plan mitigation activities: it might mean purchasing flood prone areas (as a community or city or region), or elevating buildings. We’re not trying to add levees and dams. We’re trying to do fairly soft mitigation techniques with less impact on the environment.” In addition, FEMA is beginning to think about stormwater management as an issue that extends far beyond the flood zone itself, taking “a more comprehensive and holistic look at what’s happening in a watershed.”
The proactive, watershed planning approach FEMA is advocating suggests that, in order to keep up with the changing landscape, perhaps it is time to consider new, alternative modes of occupying the water’s edge that are capable of withstanding change and water infiltration. Architects, engineers, and landscape architects may be able to provide guidance and insight into the issue. American Institute of Architects’ Latrobe Prize winners Catherine Seavitt, Guy Nordenson, and Adam Yarinsky, the co-authors of the forthcoming book On the Water: Palisade Bay, have begun to investigate new ways of building on the waterfront. In their publication, they introduce the concept of “resilience,” a strategy focused on soft infrastructure such as constructed islands, reefs, piers, and wetlands that can absorb the impact of natural disasters. (Their work inspired the Rising Currents project and exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.) As Seavitt explained, “Reframing the debate can create openings for action…. It is interesting to think that you can design something in such a way that it becomes beautiful, or a great amenity to a community, and somehow goes beyond the arguments or the entities that are there. More than just a strategy for mitigation or adaptation, it’s giving something back that’s even better.”
Working with water is a lot better than working against it.
In the space of four centuries, Boston has increased its land area by 39 times, from 1.2 square miles in 1630 to 48 square miles today. The entire area of the city is now 90 square miles, of which 54 percent is land and 46 percent water. Over the past century, the sea level has risen a little over 10 inches. By a conservative estimate, it will have risen a further 30 inches by 2100.
Why Does This Matter?
Boston, no less than Amsterdam, is a water city. In topography and climatology, as in history and culture, the past is prologue. If, as forecast, there is a significant rise in the level of the ocean, the expansionist narrative of the city’s development will be reversed so that by the year 2100, absent immediate and radical action, Bostonians will be revisiting the shoreline of the 1880s.
Boston, much like other coastal cities, has become increasingly aware of the challenges that sea-level rise poses for both existing and future development and the choices to be made — technical, economic, and social. In 2009, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission held an international design competition for ideas responding to sea-level rise in San Francisco Bay and beyond. This year, the Museum of Modern Art and PS1 have joined forces to address the challenge of sea-level rise as it would affect New York City: project proposals by architects, artists, engineers, and others are the subject of a workshop and exhibition, Rising Currents. As stimulating as such events may be for ambitious designers, without political leadership, they are simply tinkering at the edge. To understand the gravity of the situation, imagine a replication of the inundation caused by Hurricane Katrina visited upon every coastal community in the United States. The tragedy of New Orleans in 2005 laid bare not only the vulnerability of the city’s physical infrastructure and its critical part in the economy of the nation, but also the social inequities sustained within that fragile crucible.
Facing the Facts
Published jointly by Allianz, a global financial services provider, and the World Wildlife Fund, Major Tipping Points in the Earth’s Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector provides the most recent evaluation of the effects of climate change and the likely effects on the insurance industry. Combined sea-level rise is one of four critical areas addressed in the report, with a focus on exposed assets in port megacities and specifically those on the northeast coast of the United States.
The financial stakes for Boston are not trivial. Assuming low and high projections of a 20-to-26-inch rise in sea level by 2050 (by the time today’s infant is in mid-career), the report projects an “exposed risk” to property damage and consequential loss ranging from $409 billion to more than $460 billion (think of 20 Big Digs or half the cost of the Iraq war).
In trying to imagine how such a flood might look and feel in Boston, there is some instruction in looking back to the flooding of Paris in 1910. Weeks of heavy rain and swollen watercourses upstream caused the Seine to overflow its banks and submerge the city, including the Île de la Cité and Notre Dame. This had happened 250 years earlier, in 1658, but the difference in modern Paris was that the flood water found new conduits in the sewers laid by Haussman and in the recently constructed Metro lines. So in addition to filling the cellars, the floods permeated the underground infrastructure of the city, water gushing in at every orifice, issuing forth into major railway stations such as the Gare D’Orsay and bringing the city to a halt.
Transpose this scenario to Boston. A relatively modest 12-inch rise in sea level is projected to happen, at the latest, by 2046 and, at worst, by 2016, a mere six years from now. Combined with a stiff northeaster of some days’ duration, the waves of the Atlantic are likely to top the threshold of subway stations such as Aquarium and South Station and to rush down the access ramps of the Central Artery and the Tip O’Neill tunnel to Logan Airport. In most readers’ lifetimes, and within the space of a few hours, high tides, aided and abetted by a full moon and high winds, could drown the modern city of Boston in the bathtub of the Atlantic. The floods of February 1978 (the “Great Blizzard”) and October 1991 (the “Perfect Storm”) not only presage the magnitude of what can be expected, but as “extreme events” they are also predicted to occur with increasing frequency.
What Are the Choices?
There are two choices before us as a city and as a country: to do nothing (or too little, too late); or to do what has to be done, and fast. Contrary to the conclusions of the Tipping Points report, damage to property would in some sense be the least of our problems, the greater being social abandonment, as we have seen in New Orleans.
Consider the do-nothing or “proceed cautiously” approach. Absent government intervention, decisions will be left to individuals and corporations. Some may choose to ignore the warnings, some may take adaptive measures, and others may choose to move inland out of trouble. And some, the poor, will have no choice at all except to bear witness to a generation of disinvestment followed by a catastrophic failure of the infrastructure. In other words, to do nothing is to make an undemocratic and unjust choice. Every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost is not a strategy — it would be an abdication of leadership and social justice.
This leaves us with having to do something and, if the facts are faced, doing it fast.
What Are Others Doing?
While other cities and metropolitan areas have already taken action, it is worth noting that they have also taken time to accomplish their goals. The most common form of protection is the flood barrier. The floating barriers of Venice will protect the lagoon from storm surges of up to 10 feet. With completion scheduled for 2012, the project has been 25 years in the making. London’s Thames Barrier was a mere 10-year project, completed in 1984 — but in response to the devastating floods of 1953. The Delta Works in the Netherlands is a series of 250 miles of dams, dikes, locks, and barriers started in 1950, accelerated after the same North Sea flooding of 1953, and completed in 1997.
If Bostonians want to preserve their quality of life for the next generation, they had better act now.
The Dutch Delta Commission Report of 2008 is a deeply impressive document outlining the next phase of that country’s defenses through the year 2100. The commission spells out and embraces principles of humanism and sustainability as fundamental values driving its recommendations, committing an average of $2 billion per year through the end of this century.
What Can Boston Do?
Climate scientists and actuaries have spelled out the probabilities and the consequences of sea-level rise for metropolitan Boston. Other port cities faced with similar challenges have shown us a range of strategies that are transferable to this city. We have learned from these examples that it takes a generation, say 35 years, to see a major civil project through from inception to completion. Within that span, by 2045, the water level of Boston Harbor will have risen somewhere between 12 and 36 inches. If, like the Dutch, Bostonians want to preserve and enhance the quality of life that they have enjoyed to bequeath to the next generation, then they had better act now.
Meeting this challenge requires forceful and visionary leadership at all levels of government to articulate a strategy that looks decades into the future. It is also clear that Boston cannot face this alone but must find common cause, nationally, with other coastal cities and towns.
We propose three parts to an effective strategy to “work together with water,” as the Dutch have put it:
Articulate the Vision. The crisis of sea-level rise obliges us to reexamine the value of the city as the crucible of our economy, our culture, and our community. While Boston may be a world center for medical research, the city is also a leader in social inequality. A vision for preemptive reconstruction is an oppor-tunity to right that wrong. In the words of Governor Winthrop, “the only way to avoid this shipwreck and provide for our posterity…we must be knit together in this work as one man.”
Establish the Scale. Antonio Di Mambro’s 1988 scheme for a protective harbor barrier running from Quincy to Winthrop is as important for establishing the scale and complexity of the response as it is for its physical vision. This multi-layered proposal combines a tidal-surge barrier, reconfigured harbor facility, transit line, highway, reclaimed land, and industrial, commercial, and residential redevelopment. It is an infrastructure that both protects the present and promotes the future.
Act Now. With a clear vision and a long-term goal, there are myriad actions that can be undertaken immediately: protect highway and subway entrances; raise the Harborwalk and create seawalls; establish an elevated datum for buildings; relocate electrical and mechanical equipment out of basements and above the flood levels; and develop storm-surge reservoirs with windmill pumping stations in the lowlands of the South Boston seaport.
The threat of sea-level rise is not immediate but it is urgent. The idea is not to respond to disaster but to preempt it. The challenge is not to succumb to fears (of inundation, decline, or increased taxes) but to see opportunities (of employment, urban revitalization, and social equity). Viewed with vision and discipline, sea-level rise presents the opportunity of a generation to refloat the city, its economy, and its people.
Can one river change the world? With the science and political skill behind the Charles River Watershed Association, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Jay Wickersham: As a former headmaster with a degree in Middle English, you have certainly followed an unusual career path. You are now one of the leading authorities on water issues in this region, and your organization, the Charles River Watershed Association, is similarly known today for its leadership in statewide environmental policy. How did that transition occur?
Bob Zimmerman: Curiosity, I guess. That and the fact that there were about six jobs available in the US at the time. I got into water policy after I joined CRWA as executive director in 1990. Looking back, I would say that I was fairly naïve as far as environmental nonprofits were concerned. I thought that everybody knew what was wrong with the environment, that the only question was finding the will and the funding necessary to go out and fix it. I quickly became aware that that’s not the case.
I attended lots of extremely contentious meetings with federal and state agencies, municipalities, and consulting firms about combined sewer overflows [CSOs], a function of stormwater and wastewater using the same pipes and overflowing into the river and harbor when the stormwater volume is too great for the pipes to handle. It became very clear that there was this notion that the Charles River had always been dirty — the “ambient pollution” theory — so it wouldn’t really matter if the CSOs were cleaned up because the river would still not meet any water-quality standards. It occurred to me that perhaps we needed to take a broader look, so we launched the Integrated Monitoring, Modeling, and Management project in late 1994, to figure out how the Charles watershed really works. Where does the water come from? How does it get in the river? Where are the sources of its pollution? How do they all mix? When things go bad, why do they go bad? That’s remained the focus of the organization ever since.
CRWA has become a unique regional watershed organization; I don’t believe there’s another like it in the country. It has its own engineering and science staff and legal capability, and virtually all of the work we do is based on our own science and computer-modeling capabilities. Since 1995, we’ve been monitoring every two miles of the Charles River every month, so we have a fairly deep and broad dataset. It’s pretty easy for us to figure out whether our actions are making the river better or worse, or if things are staying the same.
Jay Wickersham: Can you talk more about this concept of a watershed? People think of themselves as residents of a particular city or town, but most probably don’t even know what watershed they live in. Why have you chosen a watershed as a territory to watch over and defend?
Bob Zimmerman: From an environmental perspective, a watershed is that area of land that can be expected to survive pretty much on its own as long as there is rain. In the case of the Charles, it’s the 308 square miles of land that drains to the Charles River. The nice thing about the Charles is that it’s only 80 miles long. So it’s relatively easy to study and to understand the interactions between humans and nature and the issues that we create. A lot of the work that we do is applicable to virtually any urban river system in the world.
Jay Wickersham: The Charles has long been associated in the public mind with severe pollution. Back in 1995, EPA regional administrator John DeVillars announced a goal that within 10 years, the Charles River would be fishable and swimmable; a year later, then-governor William Weld made his famous dive into the river to underscore the state’s commitment to the goal. We’re now five years past DeVillars’ deadline. How are we doing?
Bob Zimmerman: Currently, the river meets the swimming standard in the 10 miles of the lower basin up to 70 percent of the time, and the boating standard, which is five times lower than the swimming standard, virtually 100 percent of the time. Polluted runoff during wet weather is the remaining big issue.
Early on, assumptions about pollution in the river were driven by the mistaken notion that a tremendous amount of raw sewage from the entire watershed was coming over the Watertown Dam into the lower basin. Our monitoring showed that one outfall, slightly upstream in Watertown, was continuously dumping raw sewage into the river — a number of buildings had illegal cross-connections tying into a storm drain instead of a sanitary sewer. Once that was fixed, it became clear that most of the sources of the problems in the lower basin could be found in the lower basin itself: combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, illegal cross-connections, collapsed interceptor pipes — failed infrastructure all. In the first three years of the DeVillars initiative, a million and a half gallons a day of raw waste dumping directly into the river was eliminated — a huge impact on water quality.
Jay Wickersham: Were those problems primarily the result of bad engineering or of inadequate maintenance over the years?
Bob Zimmerman: A combination of the two. Boston started laying large interceptor sewage pipes in 1854. And to save money, it was decided that, rather than put the storm drain and the sanitary sewer in separate pipes, they’d be combined in the same pipe, which is great, as long as it doesn’t rain. As the city grew, the capacity of those pipes was exceeded. A lot of the pipes were made of brick; brick has mortar; mortar fails over time. Nobody was checking the pipes: once you bury a pipe, it’s easy to ignore it. And that led to another significant concern for the region. Once the pipes start to fail, they leak in — they don’t leak out. So groundwater that the pipe passes through actually leaks into the pipe, because the pressure inside the pipe is so much lower than the pressure in the ground. In effect, what we’ve designed is a system that has created tremendous environmental problems for us.
Today, 60 percent of every gallon of water treated at Deer Island is otherwise potable groundwater or rainwater that has leaked into the system. We’re not running out of water; we’re throwing it away.
Now I have to admit that the technology available to us in 1850 and 1900 didn’t really allow us to do much other than create large centralized systems to take the water that we use in our homes and throw it away someplace a long way away from us, to make sure that we protected ourselves against cholera and typhus. It made perfect sense. But it’s not 1900 any more.
Jay Wickersham: You’re critical of the idea of a large centralized wastewater treatment system. Yet the enormous Deer Island treatment facility is considered by most people to be an environmental success story, responsible for the cleanup of Boston Harbor. What’s your concern about that kind of centralized system as a model?
Bob Zimmerman: One concern is the approach it promotes to the problems that we face with environmental issues. We tend to look at these problems in isolation. The Conservation Law Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency brought suit in the early 1980s because of the condition of Boston Harbor, which violated the Clean Water Act. The issue was cleaning up Boston Harbor; and the solution was to create this enormous centralized system, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority [MWRA], with this new enormous wastewater treatment plant. So we’ve ended up taking water from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs to serve communities in the MWRA district, using it, collecting it, and throwing it away, after treatment at Deer Island, nine-and-a-half miles out into the middle of Massachusetts Bay.
On top of that, half of the 43 communities that the MWRA serves actually pump their water locally instead of receiving it from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs. But that water also gets dumped it into the big pipe and thrown away, nine-and-a-half miles out into the middle of Massachusetts Bay.
And then there is the fact that 60 percent of every gallon of water treated at Deer Island is otherwise potable groundwater or rainwater that has leaked into the system; groundwater alone accounts for 47 percent of every gallon. So we’re de-watering eastern Massachusetts. This has enormous consequences. We’ve all learned over the last decade or so that we’re running out of water and there are going to be water wars. I’ve got to tell you, we’re not running out of water; we’re throwing it away. That 47 percent of the water in those pipes represents, every single year, the same flow as the Charles River. So there’s the equivalent of one Charles River captured and thrown away. Then there’s the stormwater that we collect off impervious surfaces in the 43 towns of the MWRA that gets thrown away. That amounts to a second Charles River. And if you add in the wastewater itself, there’s a third Charles River. So every year, through Deer Island, we throw away three Charles Rivers from those 43 communities.
Jay Wickersham: And that must have huge implications, both for the environment and for our economy.
Bob Zimmerman: Yes. The bottom line is this: you’ve got parts of rivers like the Sudbury and the Ipswich that actually run dry in the summer because whatever groundwater is available is being taken for human demand. In urban rivers like the Neponset and the Charles, the impacts are in abnormally low flows, so what you get in the river is concentrated pollution. And when there’s less water in a river, the temperature goes up, so its carrying capacity for fish and wildlife is reduced. Have we felt it at the tap, in our kitchens? No. Will we? Yes.
Jay Wickersham: So what would you suggest as an alternative to the large centralized systems?
Bob Zimmerman: At CRWA, the first part of our strategy is to buy time. It’s going to take decades to effect broad change. In the meantime, we want to make sure that things get no worse than they are right now.
Virtually all of the water problems that we suffer in urban areas are a direct result of the infrastructure we have built.
Associated with that is the work we’ve done in getting conservation-based water withdrawal permits and registrations, so that we cap the amount of water being taken from the ground, so that the rivers get no worse. With the new conservation-based permits, towns that would have had to seek new sources of water supply beginning this year, 2010, won’t need to seek new sources of water supply until 2030. So we just bought ourselves 20 years.
Jay Wickersham: You mentioned earlier that CRWA takes a science-based approach. But you’ve also got an active and aggressive legal arm. How have you been trying to effect change through the law?
Bob Zimmerman: On the time-buying front, CRWA, representing the Ipswich River Watershed Association, the Essex County Greenbelt, and Mass Audubon, sued the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2003 under the Water Management Act for failure to balance human demand with natural resource need. When one-third of the Ipswich runs dry for more than a month every summer, something is clearly wrong in the way we allow water to be used. That suit was ultimately set aside because DEP agreed with us and started writing conservation-based permits. When those came out in early 2005, 11 of the 15 towns affected immediately appealed, and our general counsel remains in court defending DEP and continuing to make the case for the permits. So far, we’ve won in every venue, and I would expect that we’ll win in the end. In the interim, those permits are in place and they do help.
We are also examining policy and regulation. We build these enormous centralized systems because somebody demands them. We know the environmental damage they create — virtually all of the water problems that we suffer in urban areas are a direct result of the infrastructure we have built. So we’re looking at regulations that take a different approach, which over time mimics nature and eventually restores water bodies. We can restore trout streams, even the Charles River, and provide for human demand pretty much regardless of growth.
Jay Wickersham: What would that mimicry of nature look like? And how would it affect the way we build today?
Bob Zimmerman: First we need to understand how nature works here in New England. Nature wants to hold on to precipitation, so water infiltrates the soils and collects in underground aquifers with tremendous storage capacity. What we typically do instead is to collect the water off impervious areas — parking lots, buildings, roadways, sidewalks, heavily compacted soils — in a storm drain in the side of the road and then throw it away. And of course, in the process of running across all of this pavement, the water also gets pretty heavily polluted — a regular pollution cocktail. If we were to mimic nature, we would not let that water get away. We would use techniques such as swales, rain gardens, and porous paving — techniques associated with Low Impact Development (LID) — to let it run through the soil to clean up the vast majority of those pollutants. In the summer, it would support plant life and trees, which provide cooling and sequester carbon, and in the winter, it would percolate back into the ground to recharge the aquifers, as it would have 300 years ago.
The idea can be applied in other ways as well. When we pump water from town and private wells for use in our homes, we can cycle it back rather than throw it away. We’ve created a computer model at CRWA to locate areas in cities and towns where that water can be cleaned up and then discharged back to the ground, so it goes back to the surface water bodies it would eventually have fed if it had not been pumped. So you get a big recycling process that restores in-stream flow, protects us against drought, and reduces flooding.
Jay Wickersham: But you well know that local treatment can sometimes lead to local opposition.
Bob Zimmerman: No matter what you do in the United States, the “not in my back yard” attitude is going to remain a problem. In the end, however, we need this infrastructure. The nice thing about these wastewater treatment plants is that they’re not the kinds of plants that currently dot the landscape — with the smells and the big surface water separators and tanks. These are, in effect, huge septic systems. Most of the discharge occurs underneath the ground. You could build playing fields over the surface. They’re not huge. The other nice thing about groundwater discharge is that you eliminate the problem of releasing pharmaceuticals and personal care products into waterways. The University of California Berkeley has shown that, within 90 feet of filtration through the ground, that stuff is eliminated.
Jay Wickersham: So the ground serves as a natural filtration and cleaning system?
Bob Zimmerman: Absolutely. It allows you to replicate, technologically, the kinds of systems that nature created before we built Boston.
Jay Wickersham: What kinds of changes should we be asking for, as citizens and consumers, as homeowners or tenants? In the face of large, complex problems like this, people often think there is little they can do as individuals.
Bob Zimmerman: The first thing we need to do is buy time. We need to reduce water demand so that we have the time to test, investigate, and put in place water infrastructure that’s restorative and sustaining.
We can demand that our municipal leaders and the consultants and contractors they hire think about the larger system instead of isolated one-off solutions. We can push for local zoning modifications to allow Low Impact Development. We can ask how we want our towns to function 20 years, 100 years from now. How do we provide for and sustain water resources? How do we provide for growth? Where do we want the growth to happen? Can we create infrastructure that causes smart growth?
One of the things we’re working on now is a process we call “spot sewering.” Many suburban and exurban communities don’t have any wastewater treatment plants. And they want to guide and control growth; they want to create a walkable village center. So let’s sewer that village center, but only the village center, to direct development to the core.
We’re looking at regulations that take a different approach, which over time mimics nature and eventually restores water bodies.
Jay Wickersham: I’ve been working on a project in North Easton, Massachusetts, which is looking at a plan to redevelop a wonderful historic factory complex. And in order to support that, the developer, with funding from the town, would provide an onsite wastewater treatment plant with enough capacity to pick up the rest of the downtown in order to foster exactly that kind of redevel-opment, while discouraging growth along the outer arterial roads.
And if they use an anaerobic treatment process to capture the methane, they can burn the methane, spin a turbine, and generate energy for that downtown district. Methane, by the way, is 23 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, so burning it is actually a good thing because it removes it from the atmosphere, a form of climate-change mitigation. If they do this right, if they run our computer model and figure out the best spot to discharge that water to the ground, and if they use an anaerobic treatment process to generate energy, they will create a profit center for a town that’s probably struggling with property taxes.
Jay Wickersham: Looking back over 20 years of stewardship of the Charles River watershed, are you optimistic about our ability to make the kinds of broad changes that you’re talking about?
Bob Zimmerman: Sometimes I feel like we’re just not moving fast enough. But then I reflect on what’s actually been accomplished, which is remarkable. I think we’re going to see some changes in the next three to five years in eastern Massachusetts that will show the way for the rest of the country and, in my opinion, the rest of the urban world. The rest of the world, particularly western Europe, is still pursuing perverse solutions, by which I mean human-managed river systems. I just can’t go there. I’m for restoring wild rivers. This is America, you know? We don’t want to go see a Yellowstone that’s in a pipe. I would love to see a Charles River where unnecessary dams are removed in Hopkinton and Milford and Dover and Sherborne, where we can fish for trout again. And that’s within our grasp.