Extending the reach of Green Stormwater Infrastructure

What does it take to center equity in Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) projects? How can others replicate successful community engagement models?

ECOSS’ many years of multicultural education and outreach have broadened the inclusion of communities of color around rain gardens and cisterns, including pioneering installations for community spaces and businesses. These are key examples of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI), which have provided home improvements and green jobs in some of Seattle’s most vulnerable communities while reducing the amount of polluted stormwater runoff entering the Duwamish River and other local waters. What does it take to center equity in GSI projects? How can others replicate ECOSS’ successful community engagement models?

A recent Green Infrastructure Partnerships (GRIP) Panel featuring ECOSS and partners in King County’s RainWise program tackled these questions with an audience of municipalities and organizations passionate about GSI.

RainWise managers and ECOSS’ multicultural outreach team led the GRIP Panel. Photo Credit: William Chen / ECOSS.

Conversation circled around a central theme: bridging gaps. Economic, cultural, language and more. GSI installations are expensive for both property owners and the contractors that install them. For low-income residents, contractors commonly must front installation costs before being reimbursed for materials months later. For property owners, only certain basins are qualified for the RainWise financial rebate. When these financial hurdles arose, ECOSS helped find solutions, such as leveraging other grant opportunities.

But financials are only part of the journey. Contractors that want to work with RainWise must first get trained, which is only offered in English. ECOSS recruits contractors from the communities that it serves, then joins them in training to act as interpreters and mentors. Similarly, ECOSS walks property owners through the RainWise paperwork and processes. The GRIP panel illuminated the work and dedication that is required to overcome the barriers to making GSI accessible for all.

The audience included municipalities, nonprofits and others working closely with Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Photo Credit: William Chen / ECOSS.

The setting for the panel could not have been more appropriate. Co Lam Temple is a central location for the local Vietnamese community and the site of several cisterns that ECOSS helped establish. It also illustrates the challenges of expanding GSI access. The temple is not located in a RainWise-eligible basin. Many community members were not native English speakers nor familiar with GSI. ECOSS helped bridge these economic and language gaps while building trust within the community. After a productive discussion of how other municipalities could help promote equitable GSI, ECOSS led a tour of Co Lam Temple to show how the cisterns were being integrated into the temple and broader community.

To bridge gaps, ECOSS builds personal connections with communities. The installation at Co Lam was a success in large part because an ECOSS staff member was already a regular attendee of the temple. When he approached the head monks about installing GSI, it wasn’t as an outsider offering a service; it was as a community member suggesting a solution.

Cisterns are now a prominent feature around the Co Lam Temple, accompanied by educational signage in English and Vietnamese. Photo Credit: William Chen / ECOSS.

ECOSS has grand visions for further advancing the equity of GSI installations. A revolving fund would expedite contractor payment by reimbursing installation costs up front and refilling from completed installations. Additionally, an ECOSS-administered fund would build on native language capacities and rapport with multicultural contractors to lower bureaucratic barriers.

The GRIP Panel was a precious opportunity to share insight on ECOSS’ equity lens with other cities, counties and organizations. The buzz of excitement after the events of the day provided hope that the lessons learned will inspire similar programs across Puget Sound.

Check out other GSI stories

‘Clean’ Coal on Hold?

In a reversal of a December Bush-administration memo, the Washington Post reports today that the EPA “said it would reopen the possibility of regulating carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.” With the ongoing debate about the reality behind the claims of clean coal proponents, the Obama administration opted to position themselves to reconsider the decision laid out in Stephen Johnson’s memo without directly opposing it. The New York Times predicted as much back in December, saying that Johnson’s memo left enough room for Lisa Jackson, the new Administrator of the EPA, to go through a rulemaking process to make final determinations on the issue.

Colorado Coal Miner. Photo courtesy of NIOSH - National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

Colorado Coal Miner. Photo courtesy of NIOSH - National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

While the Sierra Club heralds the rulemaking and subsequent public comment as a victory, this new position comes only days after a coal industry victory in Appalachia supporting the Army Corps of Engineers’ issuing of permits for mountaintop mining, and only weeks after AWEA reports that wind power employment had reached 85,000 in 2008, prompting some blog chatter about whether or not the wind jobs outnumber coal mining jobs.

Considering the developments in the few weeks since Obama has taken office, I am waiting to see just exactly how his administration’s commitment to “develop and deploy clean coal technology” is going to play out.


The promise of a “Green Collar Economy” vs. the availability of Green Jobs

Renew Energy – the “biofuels industry leader for innovation and efficiency” boasting the largest ethanol plant in Wisconsin – has just filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Their struggle, along with the eminent demise of other leading ethanol producers and distributors, begs the question: How can we have a Green Collar Economy with a shrinking, besieged green sector? Perhaps more critical: Are we depending on the right resources and jobs to create a Green Collar Economy?

With over $100 billion dollars allocated to “green projects” in the proposed economic stimulus package, green jobs have the potential to replace jobs in declining sectors such as manufacturing and other occupations that are being shipped overseas.

Let’s look at ethanol. Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) can be manufactured and used as a biofuel alternative to gasoline, mostly for use in cars. It is conventionally referred to as a renewable resource that is easy to manufacture and process because it can be made from common crops like corn (although it doesn’t come without it’s fair share of criticism and risk – namely the food vs. fuel argument.). Less than two months ago, The Renewable Fuels Association, at the request of President Obama, submitted a statement highlighting how the ethanol industry provides green jobs. The RFA stated that more than 238,000 green jobs were created last year because of the ethanol industry. This boded especially well for parts of the country like Wisconsin, where rural communities are struggling under the weight of the economic crisis and jobs are in short supply and high demand.

For now, the ethanol-producing industry is failing in Wisconsin and the other Midwestern states who lead the country in ethanol production. But with the rising price of gasoline – and the finite availability of that resource coupled with the desire for energy independence and a healthier environment- will biofuel production find its way back into the green jobs sector? Should we keep pouring resources into the biofuel industry or focus more intently on other energy producing sources?

General Biodiesel here in Seattle offers a promising alternative that doesn’t come with the risks associated with ethanol biofuels. Instead of using raw materials, like corn, they utilize waste cooking oil and animal fat as sources for fuel: sources that are renewable and sustainable, or a “waste to energy” model. Although wind turbines currently account for only one percent of energy production in the United States, Washington ranks fifth in the country and is poised to create thousands of new jobs as the sector expands.

Maybe when we put our time, money and energy into resources that are truly renewable and sustainable, we can create the green economy we envision.

-Elise Roberts