I just got back from the University of South Florida (USF), which hosted a conference on green infrastructure (GI) in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Patel College of Global Sustainability. This is the first event that USF has held on GI, so I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out it was a great event – one of the most interesting small conferences I’ve been to in a long time. There were presentations made by professionals with varying backgrounds, levels of experience and areas of focus. Some were practitioners and some were researchers; some focused on social/well-being, and others focused on technical research. Some focused on domestic issues; and others spoke to the global nature of stormwater.
One of the best things about for me was the amount of new faces. Also, the series of keynote speakers were very informative, especially the dinner keynote talk made by Paul Brown, a visiting professor with the Patel and a long-time water sector leader with CDM Smith, who focused on the “Death of Stationarity“, based upon a paper in Science on this idea, which is that the envelope of variability related to climatic parameters (precipitation patterns, temperature, etc.) is becoming increasingly unpredictable a. We even heard from the benefactor of the College, Dr. Kiran C. Patel, who was on campus to host some Bollywood stars who ceremoniously planted some trees (Dr. Patel is a supporter of IIFA, the Oscars of Bollywood – and he was key to bringing the IIFA awards to Tampa this April).
I was also involved in the event – I gave a keynote presentation focusing on policy and legal issues in the stormwater sector along with funding/financing challenges as well as a view of the future growth potential within the stormwater / green infrastructure sector. The outlook in stormwater was based upon an analysis of the growth in two analogues in the environmental arena – municipal solid waste recycling and wastewater. My premise is that growth of new ideas, concepts, products, etc., often follow a maturation curve that starts with slow growth, but then accelerates once a tipping point is past. These tipping points are brought on through various drivers – but I categorize them as being “soft” (behvavioral/social norms) and “hard” (regulatory/economic pressures). For recycling, rates were initially low with a slow rate of growth between 1960-1985, but then an order of magnitude more growth occurred in recycling rates between 1985 and the late ’90s (becoming more late by the mid 2000’s) – what happened? The answer is that we became a nation of consumers and increasing waste, evident by the per capita solid waste output rising from 2.75 lb/day in 1920 to 5 lb/day in 1970 and finally up to 8 lb/day by 1980. Our landfills were becoming full (the largest landfill in the world was on Staten Island, NY), and accordingly, state and local governments began recycling programs in earnest – many using incentives (anyone recall the nickel buybacks for Coke bottles?) to change behavior. Now it has become a social norm to recycle – in fact, it’s odd to not do so. As a friend of mine relayed, his brother-in-law (a staunch conservative) religiously drives his Humvee to the recycling center every week) – clearly it’s become just a “good housekeeping” activity void of political stigma. Constrast this with the advent of the secondary treatment requirement across the nation for wastewater facilities brought on by the passing and signing of the Clean Water Act, which reduced discharges of raw sewage from 16% of facilities in 1972 to 0.6% in 1978. Similarly, the percentage of facilities discharging from advanced treatment processes rose fo 3% in 1972 to 19% by 1978. It is less of a mystery why this change happened – the CWA passed, but also the Construction grants and Clean Water State Revolving Fund programs backed up this legislation by supplying 1/2 of all public capital investment between 1972 and 1996 (and 1/3 of all capital investment). With this in mind, my question is then – “Will stormwater evolve more like recycling or wastewater?” My answer to this is – “both, I think?” For instance, like recycling, there are many personal choices that can drive the implementation of green infrastructure, especially on private property, and incentive programs can help to change behavior as well. However, like the national secondary treatment standard for wastewater, we are looking the first national performance standard established by the current stormwater rulemaking (if it indeed moves forward), which will mandate retention requirement for all states and across many more areas and development situations – which will also impact the public sector. Include the recent rise of Residual Designated Authority (RDA) to address existing impervious impacts, and there are some real hard drivers as well as soft drivers. Ultimately, I believe we haven’t reached the tipping point yet in stormwater/GI, and that there is much growth to be seen.
But I digress – I also sat on a panel along with other keynote speakers, to discuss barriers to implementing GI, which was a question based upon the WEF document submitted to EPA. Was a very interesting discussion focusing on issues of risk and perceived problems, many of which do not exist. I was also fortunate to present my PhD research work to the dean of the college, Dr. Kala Vairavamoorthy, along with some of his post-doc faculty. I got some great feedback from all, and greatly appreciated the chance to have a lively academic discussion on my area of research.
Lastly, I want to note how friendly and responsive all the faculty and staff were at the Patel College, and that Kala was a very open, accessible and welcoming presence at the event. As a sponsor of the event (WEF was one of many sponsors), we couldn’t be happier for the success of the event and look for more events like this in future.