Staff Editorial: The city can squander green infrastructure’s potential with inadequate study, maintenance

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Local officials like to present “green infrastructure” as a win-win solution to stormwater runoff. The term refers to a collection of solutions including permeable pavement and vegetated areas that, if done properly, can provide significant environmental benefits.

When rainwater hits pavement or any other impervious surface, it can pick up oil and debris on its way into storm drains. This water then sometimes rushes into nearby waterways, increasing pollution and erosion. Other times, it’s sent into the sanitary sewer system, where it can overwhelm water treatment plants and result in sewage overflows.

Green infrastructure’s role is to absorb this water, reduce its volume in storm sewers and filter out pollutants. The vegetated areas can calm traffic and add aesthetically pleasing garden space, and installation of the permeable pavement can coincide with already-planned roadway repairs. Both the D.C. Department of Transportation and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority have big plans for this approach in response to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency runoff mandates.

But some residents are sounding the alarm that green infrastructure now in place in D.C. may be yielding benefits only on paper.

In Chevy Chase, the Transportation Department installed a host of green infrastructure projects two years ago — nominally as a pilot program to evaluate different methods. The agency recently announced plans to do further work elsewhere in the neighborhood. Asked for results of the pilot program, officials said the data weren’t yet available. Neighbors said the city had failed to maintain its existing green infrastructure — stormwater-absorbing gardens weren’t tended, and permeable pavement was allowed to clog up.

Essentially, the neighbors charge, the Department of Transportation spent significant time and money only to squander its investment. And then, without data to prove otherwise, the agency is coming back to do it again. The department also has its eye on other spots citywide. Meanwhile, DC Water is preparing to do its own green infrastructure work in the Glover Park and Burleith areas.

In our view, the merits of such projects can indeed be as compelling as the rosy pictures painted by their design teams. The city really can achieve environmentally friendly, aesthetically pleasing streets and alleys. But agencies responsible for green infrastructure work have an obvious responsibility to ensure that the projects are effective — not simply the on-paper fulfillment of federal mandates.

If green infrastructure isn’t maintained, it’s a disservice to the taxpayers or ratepayers who funded it, to the residents who suffered through its construction in front of their homes — and to the environment.