Chicago Makes Green ‘Instream’

If Frank Sinatra was still around, he would have to change the words in his iconic song Chicago from calling the city a “toddling town” to a “green town.” Usually we are talking about residential or commercial buildings when discussing sustainability or green issues, but in this case it is a whole city water infrastructure. Chicago has begun a massive effort to upgrade its stormwater conveyance system, water lines and sewer system. With that project well underway  Mayor Rahm Emanuel is also turning his  eye to retrofitting buildings so that they are more energy efficient.

Chicago has an aging stormwater, water and sewer system. When you call Chicago’s water system old, it is really a misnomer because ancient would be a better description. The whole system is outdated, resource wasting, and a disaster just waiting for a perfect storm of conditions. Everyone fully expects roads to start collapsing as the pipes below them collapse with heavy rains. The Chicago stormwater conveyance system was built in 1856 and is a combination wastewater and stormwater system that moves water to treatment plants. Managing the wastewater has apparently not been a problem, but the increase in the amount of hard surfaces in the city has left less and less green space to soak up stormwater. Stormwater flows into the sewer system, and when the wastewater system overflows, sewage ends up in the Chicago River.

Chicago is to be commended in its approach to solving the problem. Though the city tries to just maintain the built infrastructure, it has included green space in its upgrading designs. This is in recognition of the balance that must be maintained between built and natural environments to create a workable system for the long run.

Chicago’s water lines are so old that the construction workers are still finding hollowed-out trees that were used as pipe decades ago. Four of the 12 pumping stations are still using steam for power. Chicago is replacing all water infrastructures that are over a hundred years old. That equates to 900 miles of water line, 160,000 catch basins, and 750 miles of sewer. They are upgrading the city’s water filtration plants and converting them to electricity to save over $7 million, which will then be used to finance the work.

Learning Some Lessons about Leveraging

This is an expensive green project. Each mile of water main upgrading costs $2 million, and each mile of sewer line replacement costs $4 million. However, what building architects, designers and builders can learn from this project extends beyond replacing a creaky water and waste system.

The first lesson is that this green project is financed with a blend of traditional financing and a trust fund. The Infrastructure Trust Fund includes both private and public funds. Although you would expect an investment of public funds, the addition of private funds surprised many people. We don’t usually think of private investments in public structures, unless it is the traditional bond approach. In this case, the Infrastructure Trust Fund will work with private debt and equity investors to provide advantaged financing to various projects utilizing various financing forms that include debt or equity investments. Note the word ‘equity’ because it means the investors have some level ownership of the project. Traditional funding is used first, and the trust fund is used for forward-thinking project phases or projects. This is a very brief summary, but it gives you a good idea of the leveraging of public and private money to achieve a sustainability goal.

The second lesson is that this is a clear case of where green efforts will create desperately needed jobs. The City of Chicago had an 8.8% unemployment rate as of August 2012. The infrastructure upgrade has led to the hiring of thousands of workers in various trades from heavy machine operators to bricklayers. The Trust Fund is used for transformative projects, according to Mayor Emanuel, and traditional financing will fund the other public projects.

The first Trust Fund project is the retrofitting of older city buildings, which is considered transformative. This project will lead to over a thousand people being employed and, when complete, will save the city $1-$1.5 million in monthly energy costs.

The third lesson is that green projects do not have to wait for better economic times. Green projects can be an engine for better economic times. Too many people think of ‘green’ as being outside of the mainstream. Green is something different or something more expensive, and so it becomes something nice-to-have but not necessary. The recent trend at the state levels to lower green building standards is partially due to this attitude. Chicago is proving everyone wrong, but it took some innovative approaches. Chicago is proving that green is not only mainstream, it is ‘instream.’

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