Will Municipal Green Infrastructure Save Lake Erie?

The EPA handed out millions of dollars in grants to support green infrastructure. Is it enough to solve algae woes?
Will Municipal Green Infrastructure Save Lake Erie?
Looking to stem the tide of algae growth in Lake Erie, the EPA’s GLRI Shoreline Cities grant program has provided 16 municipalities with funding to improve water quality in the Great Lakes basin.

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Keeping Lake Erie clean from green has as much to do with water quality as it does with aesthetics. The longtime Great Lakes problem child and bellwether to the nation’s freshwater supply suffers from being the shallowest of the waterways and most susceptible to phosphorus loading and subsequent algae blooms.

Once hailed as a success story for its cleanup efforts, the lake again turned green in 2011, with a 2,000-square-mile mat of toxic algae stretching from Detroit to Cleveland. Although discharge limits on wastewater treatment plants proved successful a decade ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and surrounding watersheds face a more daunting task this time around.

A municipal approach
Fertilizer and agricultural runoff have been identified as major contributors to the growing levels of phosphorus, along with urban stormwater runoff, climate change and invasive aquatic species.

“It may be agricultural lands where most of the nutrients are coming from, but municipalities are the ones who have to contend with the fallout the most,” says Cameron Davis, senior advisor to the EPA administrator for the Great Lakes. “They’re the ones who have to try to treat the water coming at them and have to treat the drinking water going back out for people to use. They have a lot at stake here.”

Looking to stem the tide of green growth, the EPA’s GLRI Shoreline Cities grant program has provided 16 municipalities with funding to improve water quality in the Great Lakes basin. The grants can be used to fund up to 50 percent of green infrastructure projects on public property.

New York projects
The City of Buffalo, N.Y., and the Buffalo Sewer Authority will use a $500,000 EPA grant along with $500,000 in funding from Empire State Development to construct green infrastructure along a one-mile section of Niagara Street. The project includes installation of porous asphalt, stormwater planters, rain gardens and a reduction of impervious pavements.

Located along the eastern shore of Lake Erie, Buffalo and its 11 million residents rely on the Great Lake for freshwater, drawing about 22 billion gallons a year. The City also discharges about 1.89 billion gallons of combined sewer overflows during a typical year. Implementation of the City’s Long Term Control Plan is expected to drop that total by 73 percent to about 504 million gallons a year.

Stormwater from the roadway, part of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail/National Scenic Byway, drains to the Black Rock Navigation Channel and the Niagara River, which flows into Lake Ontario. The infrastructure projects will capture stormwater from about 15 acres along the Niagara Street right-of-way, preventing 4.9 million gallons of stormwater runoff each year.

Julie Barrett O’Neil, green program director for the Buffalo Sewer Authority, says New York and the U.S. EPA have been working on regulations to prevent toxic algae and cynobacteria from becoming a greater issue for the Great Lakes.

“The Buffalo Sewer Authority will be investing about $90 million on green infrastructure over the next 20 years,” she says. “That funding is in part for green streets, where we capture the stormwater runoff. The other portion is for work on vacant lots.”

The sewer authority piloted green infrastructure technology on five streets two years ago and expanded to include seven more streets that are either in planning, construction or design and should be completed in the next four years.

“The entire Niagara Street project is four miles,” O’Neil says. “This section was an area that was not part of the combined sewer overflow system, so that’s where the grants are helpful to fill in the gaps."

The sewer authority is bringing another $2.3 million to the project to do stormwater management on the rest of the corridor.

“If we look at the whole corridor, it’s a 50-acre project that could capture 16 million gallons of stormwater a year,” she says, noting it also improves neighborhood aesthetics. “We’re adding bumpouts, which will be part of the stormwater planters. We’re putting in trees, which will create a more attractive pedestrian experience. And we’re adding bike lanes to create more of a neighborhood rather than a thoroughfare.”

Design work is scheduled for fall with construction beginning in 2015 and completion in either 2015 or 2016.

“Because it’s downstream of our water intake, it won’t directly impact Buffalo’s water supply for drinking but it will affect our recreational quality,” O’Neil says. “It hits on a great many targets, in addition to it being a Great Lakes Seaway Trail/National Scenic Byway. So there are a lot of opportunities here to add value and address a number of concerns by doing a green project rather than just gray stormwater management.”

Greening up Detroit
On the western edge of Lake Erie, the City of Detroit received a combined $2 million in grants for blue and green infrastructure projects to reduce stormwater entering the combined sewer system on the city’s east side and the Detroit River downstream. In addition to a $1 million EPA grant, the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation and The Kresge Foundation are partnering to provide $1 million in matching funds.

The Detroit Future City Implementation Office, along with the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., will administer the foundation grants for the two ongoing projects that include the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP) and Recovery Park.

LEAP will clean and green 40 to 50 vacant lots using methods ranging from tree to wildflower planting. The Recovery Park project will use bioswales and rain gardens to manage about 32 acres of stormwater runoff, which will be conveyed to storage facilities for use as irrigation during the development phase.

“The infrastructure techniques are anticipated to reduce about 1 million gallons of runoff in a typical 24-hour event,” says Kelly Karll, senior civil engineer for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, a regional planning partnership for seven Michigan counties. “Ultimately, the goal is to have 100 percent runoff red


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