Neukrug explains Philadelphia water initiatives

By Samantha Greenfield || Senior Staff Writer

Common Hour, entitled “Green City, Clean Waters,” was given by the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department, Howard Neukrug. Neukrug is the Chief executive of Philadelphia’s Water Utility as well as a professional engineer, board certified environmental engineer, and a graduate in civil and urban engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a national leader for urban sustainability and is the creator of Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program.

He explains that Philadelphia’s water system is different from others in the country because it is integrated, meaning that the drinking water treatment, storage and distribution, waste water collection and treatment, and storm water and flooding services are all under one system.

The three greatest challenges for the Philadelphia water department are rebuilding the water infrastructure, raising revenues, and answering the question of how to design and build for the future when stationarity may no longer exist. Stationarity is the concept of looking at a series of events as unchanging over time. Storms are no longer similar to storms of the past, and water is arriving to Philadelphia in different ways than in the past.

Neukrug tells the audience about his trip to the Netherlands to observe the water level rising. In an area in Holland, the engineers decided to run the river through the city in order to remain flexible in terms of planning for the future.

Two ways to create change is through crisis and leadership; however, there are many crises and there has been little change. There have been cynatoxins in Toledo, the drought out west, and the flooding of the Schuylkill River; which is emblematic of the flooding that happens every day nation wide.

Neukrug goes more in depth into his job, which concerns water after it leaves the sky. Everything that his office does as a water utility also impacts the economy of Philadelphia. The costs of the programs are in the billions, which is a challenge considering the incomes of many Philadelphians. He argues that we must make the city more sustainable so that people can afford their water bill.

Over the last two hundred years Philadelphia has lost a large percentage of its streams as a result of development. He shows a picture of a house in 1870 in which a river valley is obstructed by sewers and filled up; builders changed the landscape and removed streams. So why bury a stream in a sewer? Neukrug explains four reasons why: transportation and access, streams as a public nuisance, easy drainage and sewer right-of-way, and squared-off blocks that could be maximized for usable building area.

Philadelphia contains 3,000 miles of pipes that originally led to the river but now are intercepted by interceptor pipes that brings the water down to the water treatment facilities. These interceptor pipes are quite large. However, when it rains the pipes can’t handle all of the water. Neukrug said that he could either make it stop raining so much, increase sewer capacity, or stop putting rainwater in the sewer. The third option is how to keep the system green, which has lead to the integrated approach to the water system.

For the past 15 years, the water department operated the Green City, Clean Waters program. Currently, a 25-year program is operating to make the cover of Philadelphia more sponge-like so that water will not flow directly to the sewer system. After five years, which will fall at the end of 2016, the water department will have created 750 greened acres that will act like a sponge for the water. After 25 years the water department will have 10,000 greened acres.

Next, Neukrug explained how water, science and politics have to be considered in order to deal with development regulations, storm water frees, innovative financing, market driven forces, incentives and grants. Neukrug wants to change the gradient of the entire city so that all of the water runs somewhere else instead of into that one inlet. One of his first projects that he did was a porous asphalt basketball court in west Philadelphia. The court was expensive because it was new to Philadelphia.

Of course, he notes, “one basketball court is not going to change the world.” However, there are many asphalt basketball courts in Philadelphia and now Neukrug knows how to make a sustainable one. Another example he shows the audience is the transformation of a block from empty lots to a new school that is green. Further than making a green space, the children were taken from the old school to this new school and their grades rose along with their level of happiness. Schools are big focus, not only because of the misapplied asphalt; but also because it can be a sight of environmental education for these children. The program is looking to redo 200 schoolyards in Philadelphia.

The goals for the water department are to create safe, attractive, and accessible areas. The green aspects that are added to the communities give back to the community by making something beautiful; but also, they manage the water.

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