Choosing Clean Water

By J. Richard Gray, Mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania

The City of Lancaster was honored to host the recent Choose Clean Water Conference sponsored by the Choose Clean Water Coalition. The three-day conference was both inspiring and affirming, insofar as the name of the conference itself reminds us that we can have clean water if we want it. Inspiring, in that technological advances have given us the power to preserve our water resources: not because of federal mandates, but because we have an ethical and moral obligation to do right by our children and grandchildren.

Minutes from a 1927 Lancaster City Council meeting note that "The meandering course of the Conestoga Creek... formerly was a source of pride and largely used for recreational purposes. The continually increasing discharges of untreated sewage and industrial wastes have polluted this stream to a serious degree." The minutes cite sludge deposits, oil slicks, and other pollutants that "do not disappear" before reaching the Susquehanna River and flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Nor has this century-old problem disappeared.

Today, the City of Lancaster is responsible for about one billion gallons of polluted water flowing into the Conestoga River and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. This is common in historic cities that rely on a combined sewer system to collect and transport both domestic sewage and rainwater flowing from downspouts, streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and over impervious surfaces into storm drains. Eighty-five percent of the time, the city's treatment facility is able to manage and clean the volume of water flowing through this combined system. Still, during heavy rainstorms and other wet weather events, the system becomes overwhelmed and untreated stormwater overflows into rivers.

The problem of stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflow is not going away; nor will our responsibility to help clean and restore the Bay. In response, Lancaster City has developed a Green Infrastructure Plan to address the problem of stormwater runoff using techniques that are both cost-effective and responsible. We began with two important questions:

  1. Can the city realistically eliminate one billion gallons of stormwater runoff in twenty-five years employing green infrastructure?
  2. Can this approach provide more benefits per dollar than traditional gray infrastructure alternatives?

The answer to both questions is yes, but only with a concerted effort on the part of city government, residents, and businesses. Joining with non-profit and other private sector partners, efforts are underway to engage the community in specific green infrastructure projects in our neighborhoods. To date, some 50 demonstration projects around the city serve as examples of how green infrastructure improvements can benefit residents and businesses and, at the same time, enhance our quality of life.

At a time when mayors of communities large and small are struggling to provide core city services, green infrastructure provides a cost-effective "choice" for managing stormwater runoff. We hope that Lancaster City's Green Infrastructure Plan can serve as a model for other mid-size cities and a roadmap that marks the journey towards a more livable, sustainable, and economically viable future for generations to come. The choice is ours.

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