When Ballard Spahr took on the task of assisting Philadelphia’s Water Department in implementing its “Green City, Clean Waters Program,” the firm, the Water Department, and the City's Sustainability Office helped the client's finance team demonstrate a surprising truth: sometimes the green approach is often also the most cost-effective.

The “Green City, Clean Waters Program” is one of the nation’s most ambitious plans to use green infrastructure to comply with state and federal water-quality laws. In Philadelphia and many other U.S. cities, aging infrastructure and increasing population density have combined to strain the capacity of sewer systems, especially those that operate as combined sewer and storm water systems. During major storms, the capacity of the combined systems can become overwhelmed, and the untreated excess overflows into lakes, rivers, and streams. The City needed a better solution. They called on Ballard Spahr.

We assembled a team of attorneys in our Public Finance Department and Environment and Natural Resources Group to help the Water Department structure the program and funding plans. The solution involves the City’s issuing tax-exempt bonds and using other available funds to finance sustainable infrastructure. The plan also includes city-issued grants and loans to encourage private landowners to develop green infrastructure on their own properties. Instead of adding gray infrastructure by building more pipes and containment facilities at an estimated cost of $10 billion, Philadelphia will spend one quarter of that amount, $2.5 billion, on green infrastructure.

The plan we helped develop delivers social, environmental, and aesthetic benefits. It uses numerous green alternatives such as storm water tree pits, vegetated bumpouts, porous asphalt, rain gardens, and sidewalk planters to transform manmade surfaces that repel rainwater into green acres that capture, store, and manage rainwater before it reaches sewer systems and creates environmentally unhealthy overflows.

The program is a great example of how municipalities can upgrade existing water infrastructure, comply with state and federal clean water regulations, and counteract the effects that the spread of impervious surface has had on the supply of usable groundwater. And, through creative and replicable use of tax-exempt financing, it can be accomplished in a cost-effective manner.