It’s been 300 years since botanist John Bartram decided to build a garden on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Today, the landscape looks vastly different.
It’s been 300 years since botanist John Bartram surveyed his farm on the banks of the Schuylkill River in what is now Southwest Philadelphia and decided to build a garden for his beloved plants.
Today, Bartram’s Garden is a National Historic Site and a gem of Philadelphia’s park system.
But the landscape around it looks vastly different than it did three centuries ago. Layers of development have turned the city into one of the nation’s densest, and a collision of socioeconomic factors has also made it one of its poorest.
Bartram’s executive director Maitreyi Roy sees incredible potential for gardens to serve this complex metropolis, and bring the peace offered by nature to some of its most troubled residents. She and her staff have prioritized reconnecting underserved neighborhoods to the river, where people can fish, boat, and otherwise relax. And since the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckonings that ensued in the summer of 2020, that work has taken on new urgency.
But there’s a problem.
Dozens of times a year – every time there’s a decent rain – the water becomes off-limits. It’s too full of raw sewage for it to be safe.
Pollution can enter a major river like the Schuylkill from many places, but at Bartram’s, the closest culprit is Mill Creek. Located just upstream from the garden, it was one of several creeks that the city paved over and converted into a sewer in the 19th century.
When it rains, the creek funnels sewage from nearby homes and businesses directly into the Schuylkill, adding E. coli and other threats to the water.
“Our rivers are our lifelines,” Roy said. “I’m not saying all residents need to be paddling on the water. But for our city to be livable, our rivers need to remain clean.”
The big picture
There are 163 more places like Mill Creek in this city, where a vast underground network of aging sewers, designed in a different era, overflow into the Schuylkill, Delaware, and Tacony and Cobbs Creeks.
It’s a problem faced by hundreds of older cities across the country, and has drawn significant attention in recent decades from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Here in Philadelphia, the city is halfway through a 25-year agreement with federal regulators to cut down on the billions of gallons of sewer water that pour into area rivers and creeks each year.
Twelve years ago, when the Philadelphia Water Department [PWD] came up with its Green City, Clean Waters plan to soak up the stormwater that fills its sewers using “green infrastructure” such as rain gardens, green roofs and permeable surfaces, it won accolades for being a national innovator. Green infrastructure is not only cheaper than building underground holding tanks, proponents said, it can also beautify a neighborhood and offset summer heat.
Lisa Jackson, a former EPA administrator under President Barack Obama, went so far as to deliver a speech on the program’s merits as it kicked off in 2012.
“The techniques under this program will work with Mother Nature, and use natural environments to filter runoff and relieve pressure from the city’s 3,000 miles of traditional sewer infrastructure,” Jackson said, speaking in Philadelphia. “It is our hope that lessons from Green City, Clean Waters will translate to other cities as well. We want to see the benefits of green infrastructure taking hold in other large metropolitan areas.”
Now that the program is at its halfway mark, The Chestnut Hill Local partnered with Grid Magazine and the online magazine Delaware Currents to spend several months looking into it. This report is based on interviews with more than a dozen engineers, clean water advocates and other experts as well as reviews of more than a decade of PWD materials.
What emerges is a complicated story that is neither success nor failure, and traces some of the deepest fault lines of American society. It may also cost Philadelphia residents billions more.
Critics have started to question just how well Philadelphia’s approach is working.
Their primary concern is whether the benefits of green infrastructure have been oversold, or at least overtaken by climate change.
On paper, the PWD is hitting every target that state and federal regulators require. When adjusted for annual rainfall, the department’s annual reports show that the city has achieved about a 21% improvement from a decade ago.
But some question the targets themselves – and whether the city is relying too heavily on green infrastructure.
The city tracks success through modeling based on the weather conditions of 2006. And those conditions have changed.
Nick Pagon, a former Philadelphia School District teacher who became a clean water advocate after starting a boat-building nonprofit for city children, believes the city’s approach is already obsolete due to climate change, which is increasing the number of extreme rainfall events.
“They are meeting their mandated targets, but their mandated targets have nothing to do with the actual volume of overflows,” Pagon said.
The nonprofit PennEnvironment shares his concerns. This summer, the group released a detailed report on Philadelphia’s sewer overflows. While the city reports that so far the program has reduced three billion gallons of sewer overflow during a typical year, PennEnvironment finds that it still releases far too much – anywhere from nine to 16 billion gallons annually over the past five years.
As a result, the study calculated, sewage made portions of the Schuylkill unsafe for recreation for 162 days in 2022, and Tacony for 128 days.
John Rumpler, clean water director and senior attorney for PennEnvironment, said the city needs to rethink its overall strategy, especially in light of climate change.
“Even though they’ve made progress, they’re falling short because there’s increased rainfall,” Rumpler said.
There are also questions about whether the plan, as envisioned, is even possible to complete.
To meet its goals, the city must create 9,500 acres of new green infrastructure by 2035. That’s more land area than the Wissahickon Valley, Pennypack, FDR, and Fairmount Parks combined.
By taking the total acreage of improvements so far and extrapolating to 2035 based on recent annual averages, our reporting found that the city is on pace to reach only 60% of its target.
The PWD was not able to respond to questions within a two-week deadline for this story. It did provide links to relevant documents.
Both the EPA and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have the authority to force changes if they think the city’s program isn’t working.
An EPA spokesperson would not say whether it sees problems in Philadelphia, saying only that the federal agency “continues to have… discussions…regarding any challenges that may require PWD to re-evaluate their program.”
A spokesperson for the state’s DPA said that the agency had no concerns.
A question of strategy
Laura Toran, a hydrogeologist and professor at Temple University, is among a handful of local environmental experts who say that green infrastructure is good at keeping stormwater out of sewers, and thus sewage out of rivers, but may not be as good at capturing runoff pollution such as road salt.
She also wonders whether there’s enough “greenable” land available for the city to meet its targets.
Toran, though, has seen the range of stormwater solutions any city can implement, and thinks whatever the shortfalls of green infrastructure, it’s still worth prioritizing over the expensive, concrete ways of the past.
She notes that engineers in Europe and China are doubling down on green solutions, even while acknowledging that they get swallowed up by major deluges.
“It’s very complex, measuring success,” Toran said. “I was fascinated that [overseas experts] admitted that it’s not entirely successful, but you need to do it anyway or else things will get worse. I think that’s a really hard thing for the public to swallow.”
When Leem Patton, 19, and his family moved from West Philly to Germantown three years ago, they had no idea they were moving onto a street so prone to flooding that people sometimes have to swim from their cars to their front doors.
One of their new neighbors did warn them. But they’d learn firsthand soon enough. On July 6, 2020, Patton’s sister posted a video shot from her porch looking down at the intersection of Church Lane and Belfield Avenue below. Severe thunderstorms were passing through Philadelphia and floodwaters had completely submerged the intersection – and were pushing several feet up the front steps of their home.
In the video, a red pickup truck plows, axle-deep, through the water. Going in the other direction, a minivan pushes a sedan, which appears to be stuck or disabled. Off camera, a neighbor yells, “We used to this [expletive]!”
Three years later, Patton said, the family is in some ways used to it. Floods happen frequently, and one totaled his mother’s car. Now they know to move their vehicles to a higher elevation when a good rain is on the way. Still, it’s stressful.
“We think about it a lot, every time it rains bad,” Patton said.
Patton and his family aren’t alone. Flooding is a recurrent problem in Germantown and parts of East Mt. Airy.
In 2011, during Hurricane Irene, a 27-year-old mother of one, Deanna Compton, drowned in her car when it got stuck in floodwaters at the intersection of Haines Street and Belfield Ave.
Two years later, area residents told ABC6 they were fed up with flooding and basement sewage backups, which can occur when sewer mains are so filled with sewage and stormwater they can force the mixture back up into homes.
In Northwest Philadelphia, Wingohocking Creek is the root of the flooding problem, according to retired environmental engineer and East Mt. Airy resident Kelly O’Day, a low-key crusader for green issues in the city. Like Mill Creek in Southwest Philadelphia, he said, the Wingohocking was covered up and converted to a sewer at the turn of the 20th century.
It snakes its way from what is now East Mt. Airy and across North Philadelphia before emptying into Frankford Creek (known as the Tacony at higher elevations). The sewer’s outfall pipe into the Frankford, known as “T14,” now releases more combined sewage into area waterways than any other.
But O’Day also worries about smaller outfalls like “T1,” which discharges into tiny Rock Creek behind a Target just over the border with Cheltenham.
“It’s the grossest outfall in the region,” O’Day said. “It takes a [big] drainage area of Philadelphia and discharges it into this tiny little creek. T1 is like the hidden secret of the grossness of the combined sewer overflows.”
O’Day does think green infrastructure can help to cut down on sewer overflows. But, he said, it has its limits and believes more traditional infrastructure is still needed to solve acute problems like those in Germantown.
For proof, O’Day points to a map. Red dots mark street intersections that repeatedly flood, with choke points primarily falling in more upstream areas in Germantown, not lower-lying areas like Logan and Wayne Junction, where one might expect.
That’s because, O’Day said, Philadelphia performed a massive expansion of the sewer lines running west from Frankford in the mid-20th century, but stopped short of redoing the entire watershed in the 1980s.
“They may not have had the money to upgrade the upper Wingohocking,” he said.
O’Day understands that money is short. But he said green infrastructure isn’t solving the pressing problems in Germantown, and time is being lost. The city itself estimates that flooding in this neighborhood – one of the poorest in the city – causes $8.72 million in property damages a year.
Hefty price tags
In its original 2011 planning document for Green City, Clean Waters, PWD estimated the entire plan would cost about $2.4 billion.
The lion's share of that sum, about $1.7 billion, would go to green infrastructure. The rest would pay for upgrading three wastewater plants and relining pipes to keep sewage out of the Tacony and Cobbs Creeks. There was also a $420 million “flexible” spending category for either green or concrete infrastructure, “whichever proves more efficient as the program evolves.”
In a response to the PennEnvironment sewer report this year, PWD said it is committed to spending “over $4.5 billion in capital program infrastructure investments,” through 2029, with $1 billion dedicated to combined sewers.
Emaleigh Doley, executive director of the Germantown United Community Development Corp., said PWD has been “doing a lot of work” in the area, including installing green infrastructure and meeting with community members.
She thinks the problem is too big for PWD to solve alone. There are concerns about the affordability of flood insurance, the potential lack of disclosures of flood risk during real estate transactions, and even whether some homes should have been built in what amounts to an unmarked flood zone in the first place.
“It’s a big enough problem that it’s not going to have any easy solutions,” Doley said.
The PWD’s 2019 report on the Germantown flooding problem calculated that more traditional infrastructure options, such as a series of underground storage basins or a five-mile-long storage tunnel running under Chew Avenue, could reduce flood depths by as much as 80% and eliminate up to two-thirds of basement backups. But that would cost from $384 to $585 million – a sum that would eat up all of the city’s flexible budget for Green City, Clean Waters.
The PWD did not answer questions about the status of the Germantown plans by deadline. It did provide a copy of a December 2022 request for proposals seeking “the first level of conceptual design for the Wingohocking Relief Sewer Tunnel, which extends from the flood-prone areas in Germantown to the Tacony Creek.”
Equity and affordability
For Howard Neukrug, a former PWD commissioner who spearheaded the creation of Green City, Clean Waters, money is the defining, inescapable factor.
As the city was evaluating its options while creating the program, he said PWD did look at more traditional options – such as digging massive underground tunnels. Cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C. have spent billions of dollars on such projects, successfully storing hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage-laden stormwater during deluges, and then pumping it back to the surface for treatment during drier days.
But in Philadelphia, such solutions would have cost up to $10 billion in today’s dollars – several-fold more than the green infrastructure, he said. Going down that path would have added sharply to affordability concerns in a city where residents – some of whom have a history of delinquency – are already facing annual double-digit rate increases in their water bills.
“All the tunnels have nicknames. Ours was ‘the 100-year-tunnel,’” Neukrug said. “That’s how long it would take for us to be able to, in a city like Philadelphia, find the $10 billion dollars, put it in the rate structure, and have people pay for this thing.”
Building large tunnels is disruptive, Neukrug adds. They use up a lot of energy and are susceptible to obsolescence wrought by climate change.
They also come with none of the co-benefits of green infrastructure.
“You look at the green infrastructure solution, and you say, ‘While you’re designing the tunnel, we’re planting trees,’” Neukrug said. “We get benefits from day one.”
A different approach
Pagon, the former boatbuilder-turned-water advocate, thinks Philadelphia can do better. He said one need look no further than just across the Delaware, to Camden.
When discussions began about a decade ago between the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Camden about its own combined sewer problems, Andy Kricun, then executive director of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority [MUA], said there was a great blueprint to follow: Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters, which was formalized just a few years earlier.
“When [the program] first came out, it was groundbreaking,” Kricun said, “Nobody had been thinking about this idea… It was really smart, a game changer.”
Kricun reached out to Neukrug and others at PWD to learn about their approach, and said the Camden MUA, which is responsible for handling and treating sewage from all of Camden County, in many ways copied it.
But there were a few key differences.
Most significant was how Camden measured success. In Philadelphia, the primary metric is the number of “greened acres” installed. Each piece of green infrastructure is designed to capture a certain amount of stormwater. Install enough acres, the model shows, and the city will have reduced sewage overflows by an amount acceptable to regulators.
Camden, Kricun said, prioritized eliminating sewage flooding in homes as well as combined sewage overflows into the river, measured by devices that detect actual overflows.
“To do that, we looked at gray (traditional) infrastructure improvements as the centerpiece of our program with green infrastructure being a complementary feature,” Kricun said. “PWD's is the reverse – green infrastructure is the centerpiece, complemented by gray infrastructure.”
Camden also put nets on the end of all of their overflow pipes to capture sewage sludge as well as floating plastics, with sensors that indicate when they’ve been impacted. Each of these goals came with hard data or dependable community feedback to indicate they were working.
For these reasons, Pagon and other advocates on the Pennsylvania side of the river say Camden’s approach is superior.
“Camden is doing much better for a variety of reasons,” Pagon said.
Kricun doesn’t go that far. Philadelphia is a different beast, he points out, much larger and thus more costly to fix.
“The Green City, Clean Waters plan has already done a great deal of good for water quality in the Philadelphia region and will be even more beneficial when it has been completed,” Kricun said.
And experts like Toran, the Temple University hydrogeologist, say placing nets over pipes can have significant maintenance issues and costs. In Philadelphia, there are over 160 sewer outfalls, compared to 28 in Camden, and many are in potentially tricky locations to maintain, like the Delaware River.
Time to reconsider?
Yet even experts who support the program cautiously suggest a closer look.
For Kricun, a pertinent question is whether Philadelphia’s use of 2006 as a baseline for its models will hold up, as climate scientists predict continued increases in extreme rainfall.
He also has equity concerns. In Camden, green infrastructure installation was prioritized in frequently flooded communities. But Philadelphia views installation at any location equally.
“[Green City, Clean Waters] could be improved upon to address climate change, incorporate equity considerations, and achieve even better water quality outcomes,” Kricun said.
There’s also the question of whether there’s even enough room to put nearly 10,000 green acres in Philadelphia.
Under their 25-year agreement with regulators, most green acres are scheduled to be installed at the tail end. Philadelphia hit its target of about 2,100 acres at the ten-year mark, but that left 7,400 to go. And over the past half-decade, PWD has averaged only 236 new acres a year. At that rate, it would install about 5,700 acres by 2035, less than 60% of the total target.
“We have a major city with thousands of acres of impervious surface, so to implement and make this work, you need a lot of green,” said Robert Traver, an environmental engineer and director of Villanova University’s Center for Resilient Water Systems.
For some, these add up to serious questions. With the city spending billions on a program that may not be working as well as anticipated, waiting another decade amounts to lost time and taxpayer money.
Rumpler, with PennEnvironment, said the program’s stated $2.4 billion price tag is probably too low, and that state and federal lawmakers, along with suburban communities that send sewage to Philadelphia for treatment, should all be contributing more money to help pay what is likely to be an even bigger bill.
“I think it’s a mistake to start debating how much of that $2.4 billion should be green and how much should be [traditional] infrastructure,” Rumpler said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they need to just double that number, at a minimum, to get to the point where they’re really dramatically ratcheting down and ideally eliminating their sewage overflow.”
Neukrug said these criticisms miss the bigger picture.
The Philadelphia Water Department is an extremely forward-looking organization, he said, and it’s facing a century of unprecedented challenges. With climate change bearing down and sea levels rising, saltwater intrusion could potentially threaten the safety of the city’s drinking water and require extremely expensive upgrades to fix. Constantly lurking are the threats of unregulated chemicals and lead pipes. And this is a city where 23 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
In other words, he said, Philadelphia has a lot on its plate and limited dollars to go around.
So while questions are starting to surface about the 2012 sewer plan, Neukrug remains convinced it's the right path. Or at the very least, worth seeing through its planned completion date of 2035 before making any drastic changes.
“It’s hard to say who is wrong or right either way,” Neukrug said. “[But] we’re supporting the growth of a sustainable city… And that’s it, that’s the spot. That’s environmental justice, fairness, and affordability.”