Solving the CSO Conundrum: Green Infrastructure and the Unfulfilled Promise of Federal-Municipal Cooperation

By Caswell F. Holloway, Carter H. Strickland, Jr., Michael B. Gerrard, and Daniel M. Firger

Faced with mounting infrastructure construction costs and more frequent and severe weather events due to climate change, cities across the country are managing the water pollution challenges of stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows through new and innovative “green infrastructure” mechanisms that mimic, maintain, or restore natural hydrological features in the urban landscape. When utilized properly, such mechanisms can obviate the need for more expensive pipes, storage facilities, and other traditional “grey infrastructure” features, so named to acknowledge the vast amounts of concrete and other materials with high embedded energy necessary in their construction. Green infrastructure can also provide substantial co-benefits to city dwellers, such as cleaner air, reduced urban temperatures, and quality of life improvements associated with recreation areas and wildlife habitats.

This Article examines the opportunities and challenges presented by municipal green infrastructure programs in the context of Clean Water Act (“CWA”) enforcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”). First, it explores new thinking in urban sustainability and identifies opportunities for greater federal-municipal cooperation in the management of environmental problems, including stormwater runoff. Second, it unpacks the challenges presented by the relative inflexibility of federal environmental enforcement in the context of urban stormwater management under the CWA, and compares the differences between traditional federal approaches and newer local initiatives in terms of adaptability, responsiveness to community needs, preferences and trade-offs, cost effectiveness, and innovation. Third, it describes a recent consent agreement between New York State and New York City, identifying key features and best practices that can be readily replicated in other jurisdictions. In recent years, EPA has taken big steps forward to encourage and support municipal green infrastructure initiatives, including the release of its Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework. The Article concludes with a specific proposal for further regulatory and policy reform that would build upon this framework to develop truly comprehensive, municipally-led plans to prioritize infrastructure investments that improve public health and the environment.

Cite as: Caswell F. Holloway et al., Solving the CSO Conundrum: Green Infrastructure and the Unfulfilled Promise of Federal-Municipal Cooperation, 38 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 335 (2014).

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