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Improving Water Quality Doesn’t Have to Wash Away Budgets

Saint Paul’s “shared and stacked” approach ensures its stormwater management projects reap multiple benefits for the community.

From where I sit, Saint Paul is 1,006 miles away, but there is much about that Northern metropolis that seems familiar and close to home.

Of all the efforts that have demanded my time and attention during 40 years of public service, nothing really compares with the intense effort and immense funding needed to address water quality. Like Saint Paul, my city, Chattanooga, is a river city. It is also an old industrial community with the predictably harsh legacy of contaminated sites and vacant brownfields. I feel their pain. And I also admire Saint Paul’s aggressive and innovative response to the daunting challenges that cities like ours face as we try to restore our environmental health.

As I was conducting a little research for this piece, I was not particularly surprised to learn that Saint Paul and its "twin," Minneapolis, were built with combined sewers. Many old cities (Chattanooga included) share that early Industrial Age infrastructure, but the cost and difficulty of attempting sewer separation today often presents an almost insurmountable obstacle. In September 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a Combined Sewer Overflow Management Fact Sheet on this relatively common urban problem and Saint Paul is prominently mentioned. 

Among the approximately 1,000 communities served by combined storm and sanitary sewers, Saint Paul, South Saint Paul and Minneapolis are listed among the cities that had achieved complete or partial separation by 1999. In fact, the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area is credited with one of the largest sewer separation projects, involving more than 21,000 acres of drainage area. The fact sheet states, "By December 1996, 189 miles of storm sewers and 11.9 miles of sanitary sewers had been installed."

The project not only reduced flooding and improved water quality, but the city also took the opportunity during construction to pave streets, install streetlights, add handicap ramps to sidewalks, install new gas and water mains and replace lead water service connections. (If only Flint, Mich., had taken similar action on its lead pipes in advance of its recent and devastating problems.) In 1984 dollars, the construction costs for Saint Paul averaged $15,400 per acre, but clearly the city was determined to take advantage of the situation and make the infrastructure investment count for much more than its original purpose. Perhaps this early effort set the stage for its present day "shared and stacked" approach to making water quality projects do double or even triple duty.

A topical piece by Camille LeFevre in the MinnPost explains the policy in greater detail. The article notes: "This new method of managing stormwater ... means the system does more than one thing on a site (say, irrigation plants and/or trees) to provide additional community services or amenities beyond just managing rain runoff." One example is a tree trench system that stretches for five miles along both sides of a transit line, which includes 1,000 new trees, nine rain gardens and stormwater planters that filter rainwater and prevent oils from the street from reaching the river. Additional benefits include cleaner air and new pockets of habitat for wildlife.

Wes Saunders-Pearce, water resource coordinator for Saint Paul, said participating in the City Accelerator is something that "galvanized our ability to frame innovative green stormwater management as a benefit to the development community and local cities." The partnership enabled the development of a five-year plan to extend benefits to three additional brownfield sites in the city: West Side Flats, Snelling-Midway and the site of a former Ford plant. According to Saunders-Pearce, by focusing on these three "opportunity sites" and utilizing the financial assistance provided by the City Accelerator -- along with the "peer to peer knowledge exchange" from other communities in the program -- Saint Paul will be able to expand its study of barriers in the community to capital outlay and the cost of long-term operations and maintenance.

The development of the now vacant Ford site was the subject of a separate MinnPost article written by Peter Callaghan. The 135-acre property on the Mississippi River sounds very much like a 100+ acre site proximate to the Tennessee River in Chattanooga that formerly was the location for two significant foundries. We have been planning and wrestling with the future of that large and well-situated property for years -- not unlike other cities with similar sites left over from the age of heavy industry. But Saint Paul is taking a progressive step with its "shared and stacked" philosophy.

Another site in the list, West Side Flats, was the subject of a master plan published in 2001. The document is richly illustrated and almost classical "Olmstead/Central Park like" in its presentation of what the area might become. Architects, urban planners and other such "planning junkies" (like me) will find it interesting and inspiring. More recent articles on the subject indicate that after 16 years, Saint Paul continues to follow the plan and progressively chip away at accomplishing the proposed list of features.

The third "opportunity" site, Snelling-Midway, is the selected location for a large soccer stadium that has become somewhat controversial, but the plan still follows the community's philosophy to achieve more than a single purpose. The stadium is intended to serve as a catalyst to redevelop the surrounding neighborhood into a more livable and walkable urban village.

The great and lasting value of the City Accelerator is that it explores territory that many other communities will find familiar. Saint Paul is not alone in its long-term plans to build a better community while attempting to address the environmental sins of the past -- and all within the constraints of a limited budget. We are all in this together. Cities across America are facing hundreds of millions of dollars in financial responsibility to effectively address water quality issues resulting from problems as diverse as our aging sewer systems to industrial brownfields to surface water contamination related to pavement, landscaping and other common elements of urban development.

Wes Saunders-Pearce is quoted in the December 2016 article by Camille LeFevre as confirming that, while Saint Paul is not alone in its efforts or even necessarily first in terms of projects with layers of multiple benefits, the city remains uniquely and totally invested in the greater cause at hand. "And we're leading nationally with what we're trying to accomplish. We're way out front in terms of trying to understand how to make these systems replicable through financial mechanisms that can be institutionalized, instead of finding grants here and there."

Cities everywhere faced with similar challenges (and that means most of us) should watch closely and prepare to steal ideas from Saint Paul.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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