Record-breaking heat. Fast-moving floods. Expanding cityscapes. Poisoning pollution. Some experts say a water crisis is sweeping the nation, and urban areas – covered in impervious concrete – are facing debilitating challenges when water infrastructure demands repair.
Filmmakers at Penn State Public Media recognized this environmental predicament, and in 2011, began a journey to call attention to the country’s water needs. Along the way, they discovered communities with visionary green ideas. Growing desperate to combat these problems, innovators in cities coast-to-coast have been adopting new ways of protecting, restoring, and preserving the nation’s sources of potable water. "Water Blues, Green Solutions" was born.
Water Blues, Green Solutions is an interactive documentary project highlighting Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio, Texas; and the Bronx, N.Y., as cities that are using green infrastructure to combat their unique but devastating water challenges: flooding, pollution, and scarcity. In January 2012, the production team from Penn State Public Media, led by the film’s director, producer, and writer, Frank Christopher, met with the country’s environmental leaders – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Conservation Fund, and experts in biodiversity, landscape architecture, and engineering. This group analyzed the most volatile water problems flooding the country, the communication issues around these problems, and who was working to solve them.
"We started to focus on the sites with the most pressing problems and engaged communities. We decided on the four cities with emphasis on Philadelphia, San Antonio, and the Bronx and thought these had the most compelling stories," said Christopher.
Calamity in the city
The city of Philadelphia was built around the iconic Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. These rivers are now hubs for tourist and resident activity, as well as the sources of the city’s drinking water. Water Blues, Green Solutions reveals that a mere one-fourth inch of rainfall can cause Philadelphia’s sewer systems to overflow, contaminating the Schuylkill and Delaware. As an older city with out-of-date infrastructure, Philadelphia’s combined sewer system collects both stormwater and sewage. When these pipes reach capacity, they discharge pollutants into the rivers, violating the federal Clean Water Act.
From the disabilities of old infrastructure in Philadelphia, the documentary moves to the extreme droughts of San Antonio. The city was settled along the springs and rivers emerging from the Edwards Limestone Aquifer. The 2 million residents of San Antonio and Austin depend on the aquifer’s clean water.
With conservation efforts, "San Antonio today is pumping roughly the same amount of water that they did 20 years ago despite a 60-percent population growth," said Ken Kramer, former president of the Sierra Club, an environmental group in San Antonio.
Like Philadelphia and San Antonio, a natural body of water neighbors the Bronx. Water Blue, Green Solutions reveals that many city residents do not even know the Bronx River exists. Overwrought with pollution and abandoned with little upkeep, the Bronx River is described as an "open sewer" and is in dire need of restoration.
Community members in each of these cities have seen firsthand the debilitating effects of "water blues," and have decided to work with, rather than against nature in adopting green solutions.
In April 2012, Philadelphia leaders and the EPA announced a historic agreement allowing the city to use green infrastructure as the primary tactic to decrease urban runoff. The agreement, "Green City, Clean Waters," states the city’s commitment to spend $2 billion during the next 25 years to adopt these improvements. In moving forward with this plan, leaders from Philadelphia traveled to Portland, Ore., the so-called poster child of green infrastructure, to learn from the successes of one city for the needs of their own.
"This will be the largest single investment of environmental dollars in the city for that time period so this is the real deal," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in the film. "We will transform a third of our paved surfaces like streets, parking lots, and sidewalks with green areas that will capture rainwater and allow for higher capacity in our existing systems."
Green City, Clean Waters even extends its efforts to involve Philadelphia residents, the first in the nation to capture stormwater on the properties of individual homeowners. "The goal of the program is to provide something to our residential customers that benefits them and helps the city. Through the program, the Water Department helps pay for the cost of installing stormwater management tools," said Maggie Wood with the Philadelphia Water Department.
San Antonio, while it faces far different challenges than Philadelphia or the Bronx, is embracing green solutions in a similar way: through community leaders and individual citizens. The Edwards Aquifer Authority created drought management stages that indicate the daily level of the Edwards Aquifer. The lower the aquifer level, the higher the stage of restrictive water use. This regulates when residents can use water, not necessarily how much they use. These measures are being enforced by off-duty San Antonio police officers. On an individual level, homeowners in the city are starting to embrace xeriscaping, a type of landscaping that uses plants requiring less water.
Brian Hough, a landscape designer in San Antonio, said residents are growing more open to these types of green solutions. "They are water conscious because we’ve been in a drought for three years and this is a cyclical, periodic thing [that’s] going to come back again," he said.
Citizens of the Bronx understand the longevity and patience needed in going green. The city first started its restoration of the Bronx River in 1998, when residents joined together to create the Hunts Point Riverside Park, the first waterfront park on the river in 60 years. That park sparked a movement, and now numerous organizations exist throughout the Bronx, all dedicated to restoring the Bronx River. From pollution cleanup, to building more parks, to growing mussels in the water, these organizations are taking small but necessary steps in revitalizing the Bronx River.
"Our purpose is really to restore the people of the south Bronx and, through that restoration, restore the river," said Adam Green, executive director of Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit organization empowering the youth of the Bronx to get on the river.
Impact and outreach
"With this documentary, I wanted to convey the urgency of the issues, but also, without being so ‘doom and gloom’ about it, I wanted to make something inspiring on an individual level," Christopher said.
The need to create awareness about water issues surrounded the production of the film and will continue to do so after its release. Water Blues, Green Solutions has received major funding from the Colcom Foundation and Subaru of America, with additional support from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and will premiere nationwide on public television stations beginning in January 2014. In addition, Penn State Public Media will also launch an in-depth website component, loaded with extra footage and new, interactive ways to explore the stories and topics featured in the documentary. The website can be viewed at www.waterblues.org
"The thing I like about green infrastructure is it’s accessible to people because it depends on people," said Christopher. "I want the audience to say ‘I can do this. I can make a difference.’ These changes are within our grasp."
Chelsey Scott is with Penn State Public Media.