As discussed in our previous blog entries, water scarcity and failing infrastructure are important sustainability concerns. If you look around, you may notice areas where our infrastructure needs replacement or repair, but so few communities can afford the overwhelming costs. The EPA believes that green infrastructure offers a resilient and affordable solution.
Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments. Offering highly scalable options, green infrastructure includes anything along the lines of harvesting rainwater, permeable pavement, green roofs, and land conservation. Following suit with the definition of sustainability, these applications aim to mimic or incorporate nature harmoniously.
A prime local example is the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway that sits above Boston’s infamous Big Dig I-93 tunnel. Prior to the Big Dig, this area was a dark, barren, hazard-ridden wasted space. But now, there consists a mile-long path connecting several parks and neighborhoods resulting in a green infrastructure including public open space, storm water management, composting, and reduced costs of water and electricity.
This project came together during the new construction of the Big Dig. Would such a green infrastructure project be as effective amidst failing infrastructure? Is green infrastructure a step in the right direction for sustainability? Is it a fair trade to pour “green” into infrastructure projects in order to reap the return in environmentally-friendly “green”?
The Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) is a non-profit organization that has risen up through a joint effort by the American Council for Engineering Companies (ACEC), American Public Works Association (APWA) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The ISI has developed a rating system called Envision™ which according to ISI is “a comprehensive and workable rating system that will help project owners, designers and constructors make better management and investment decisions.”
If you are involved in civil infrastructure projects at the local and municipal level, you will probably agree that more can be done to consider the social, environmental and economic aspects of these projects beyond the limits of work. How will a new light affect the local neighbors? How will a new sidewalk affect local businesses? What economic benefit does a new sewer main have beyond the construction contract?
Often times design teams forget that the projects we are designing and constructing will likely last into the next century and the future impacts could be significant in a positive or negative way. The rating system consists of five sections to review the potential impacts on: Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, and Climate and Risk. The ISI intends to offer this rating system in four stages with the first two, self-assessment and third party verification currently available for comment and trial.
It remains to be seen whether the Envision rating system will rise to the status and stature of the LEED system. The built environment under the LEED umbrella is largely privately financed resulting in a “voluntary” evaluation system. In contrast, horizontal infrastructure projects are mostly funded by federal, state and local budgets and if these funding agencies require an Envision evaluation for sustainability in their RFP, the Envision evaluation process could become mandatory for civil infrastructure projects.
What are your thoughts about sustainability evaluations for infrastructure projects?
Unlike a fine wine, our nation’s infrastructure is not improving with age! This is made perfectly clear by a recent American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE ) report  that issued grades of D- for both our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructures . I don’t know about you, but if I brought home a grade of D- when I was going to school, that was the same as an F as far as my parents were concerned. Not only that, but a D- meant that I had better get my act together and focus on my studies or I would be in big trouble. Unfortunately, the D- grade from ASCE doesn’t seem to be having the same effect with regard to federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure improvements. In fact, a follow-up report by ASCE  released in 2011 indicates that these near failing grades are further threatened by a significant funding gap of $54 billion in 2010, which is projected to grow to a gap of over $84 billion by 2020.
Failing local infrastructures with a lack of federal funding means that local governments will need to foot more of the bill just to keep its systems running at a D- grade. Municipalities and purveyors will be looking to residential users to front a portion of the bill, but you can pretty much bet that they will be looking to the industrial users to pay a majority of the bill.
Water and wastewater are very complicated issues that involve entire regions, complicated rate structures, conservation, capital improvements, water rights, and water fights. Not to mention that the general public has a lack of appreciation for the most valuable and essential commodity on the face of the earth.
The issue of rising water and wastewater rates is just beginning. It behooves all industrial users of water to implement a water policy and aggressive water conservation practices to stay ahead of this issue. The less you and your supply chain rely on the public water and wastewater infrastructure, the more resilient your manufacturing operations will be.
 “2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure”, ASCE, 2009.
 “Failure to Act, The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends I Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure”, ASCE, 2011