Americans mostly don't think about where their water comes from or where it goes. That's going to need to change, and the lessons from Seattle will be a place to start.
On a winter's day in Seattle, a leaden monotony hangs over the Central Business District, dispiriting to this part of downtown. Contrary to reputation, the urban pallor is not born of rain, which falls almost imperceptibly from silvery clouds that match the nearby waters of Puget Sound. Rather, the gloom rises from the cement hardscape. The busy streets are paved dark gray, the wide sidewalks beside them light gray. The skyscrapers rise in shades of gray. The hulking freeways, ramps, and overpasses: gray. The monorail track and its elephantine pillars: gray.
Trudge the sidewalks northwest to Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, hang a left on Vine Street toward the sound, and a ten-foot-tall, bright blue rain tank pops from the dullness, tipped whimsically toward a red brick office building. Atop the tank, green pipes in the shape of fingers and a thumb reach out, the stretched index finger connected to a downspout from the rooftop. Rainwater flows from roof to finger to palm to thumb, from which it pours to a series of descending basins built between the sidewalk and the street. They, in turn, cascade to landscaped wedges growing thick with woodland plants. For two blocks, as Vine slopes toward the sound, water trickles down a runnel and through street-side planters, shining stones, and stepped terraces, enlivening the roadway with greenery, public sculpture, and the sounds of falling water.
The project, called Growing Vine Street, began as a small, grassroots effort among residents and property owners to turn their stretch of a former industrial neighborhood into an urban watershed. Twenty years later, it is a big part of the answer to the largest single source of pollution fouling Puget Sound and most of the major bays and freshwater ecosystems of the United States--stormwater.
The gray shellac of a city repels more than the imagination. When rain flows along streets, parking lots, and rooftops rather than percolating into the ground, it soaks up toxic metals, oil and grease, pesticides and herbicides, feces, and every other scourge that can make its way to a gutter. This runoff impairs virtually every urban creek, stream, and river in Washington. It makes Pacific killer whales some of the most PCB-contaminated mammals on the planet. It's driving two species of salmon extinct, and kills a high percentage of healthy coho within hours of swimming into Seattle's creeks, before they've had a chance to spawn.
Returning some of nature's hydrology to the cityscape can make an enormous difference --or could--as more individuals, businesses, and neighborhoods remake their bit of the terra firma. Washington State University scientists have found that streets with rain gardens clean up 90 percent or more of the pollutants flowing through on their way to the sound. Green roofs reduce runoff between 50 and 85 percent and can drop a building's energy costs by nearly a third. Cisterns like the one on Vine Street solve two problems, reducing runoff and capturing water for outdoor irrigation--which in summer can account for half a city's freshwater demand.
In the parlance of water professionals, projects like Growing Vine Street are known as "green infrastructure." But the term does not do justice to the larger water revolution it represents. Across the nation, antiquated infrastructure like Seattle's, swelling populations, and weather extremes are stressing our triplicate freshwater, stormwater, and wastewater systems like never before. Industry groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Water Works Association, National Association of Water Companies, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce repeat the mantra that the nation's water systems are some of the oldest, most overused, and most seriously failing of all America's infrastructure--worse off than the nation's bridges. The EPA estimates that repairing, replacing, and upgrading these aging water systems will cost between $300 billion and $1 trillion over the next two decades.
Yet, too often, the engineers and the estimators aren't taking into account that, rather than rebuilding waterworks in the twentieth-century tradition, an increasing number of communities are finding creative solutions that can be cheaper and better for the environment, and build resiliency to climate change. To halt sewage spills and comply with the Clean Water Act, Philadelphia was looking at a $10 billion price tag for a massive storage tunnel under the Delaware River. Instead, the city will meet those aims with a $1.6 billion project to restore streams, remake everything from basketball courts to parking lots with porous pavement, and plant miles of vegetation along rooftops and city blocks.
The water revolution reaches beyond the filtering and storage capacity of wetlands, plants, and trees to the way we perceive, use, and pay for H20. It involves seeing value in every kind of water--from irrigating with recycled water to finding energy in sewage. It sometimes eschews infrastructure altogether. It's a promising new way of living with water that stands out from the old like Vine Street's bright blue rain tank rising from the former grayscape…