Will stormwater management be the first step for community wealth building in the Greater Washington region?

For the past two years, the Community Wealth Building Initiative has been investigating viable co-operative business models that have the potential for success in the Greater Washington region. One potential business that has shown great potential to be profitable, and to attract a broad cross-section of philanthropic investment, is green stormwater management. Here’s why.

What is stormwater and which funders should care?

Stormwater is rain and melted snow that runs off surfaces such as paved streets, highways and parking lots, and the rooftops of houses and buildings. As water runs off these impervious surfaces, it can pick up fertilizers, pesticides, oil, and waste as it flows into local streams, lakes, rivers, and the ocean. If this stormwater isn’t treated before it enters major waterways, it can be dangerous, unfit for drinking, bathing, and swimming, and it can harm fish and wildlife habitat over time.

“Impervious surfaces” and “wildlife habitats” are typically terms that only arise in the conversations of people interested in environmental issues. But the issue of stormwater management has a much broader impact than is immediately apparent.

A funder who wants to build walking trails beside a picturesque waterway or a funder who sees the housing development potential of land beside a river will want that water to be clean. Any funder concerned about population health will want the major source of drinking water to be clean and safe. Their motivation for clean water may be different, but their ultimate goal is the same. And, in our region, any funder who is interested in a clean Chesapeake Bay will care about what is happening in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers as they feed into the Bay.

What is stormwater management and what does it have to do with community wealth building?

Traditionally, stormwater management has been done by collecting stormwater in piped networks and transporting it to treatment facilities or directly into streams and rivers through that network. The more current approach is “green” stormwater management, which is accomplished through green landscaping that creates rain gardens and other attractive spaces in urban areas where water can drain safely, keeping pollutants out of the water supply.

When local funders began the Community Wealth Building Initiative and started to look at green businesses that might hold potential to turn unemployed workers into business owners, stormwater management rose to the top. There was both a need and a business opportunity.

Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia seem to be leading the region in moving forward thoughtfully and deliberately on stormwater management. The County recently issued a major RFP to hire a private operator to launch a community-based public-private partnership to handle the majority of its stormwater construction and installation over the next 3 years, as well as its maintenance needs for the next 30 years, with a major focus on green infrastructure. In the District, the Department of Environment recently revised its stormwater management regulations and related technical guidebook to include a first-of-its-kind stormwater-retention credit-trading program and an increase in the water retention requirements for all regulated properties. These both present viable cooperative business possibilities.

With the largest land-to-water ratio of any coastal water body in the world, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is vulnerable to the effects of stormwater runoff. The actions that we take (or do not take) today will have a tremendous impact on our region’s health for many generations to come. Stormwater management is a ripe area of work for business owners. Anchoring this work to a federal piece of legislation, the Clean Water Act, and to local governments committed to this change might make this a win-win-win: a win for local governments, for low income individuals in need of career opportunities, and for all of us who live in the Greater Washington region.

The Community Wealth Building Initiative is a project started by the local grantmaking community through the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. It is based on the groundbreaking Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. The underlying premise is to leverage a need that is firmly anchored to the local community by filling it with local businesses owned and operated by low-income people in a disadvantaged community. 

If you’re interested in more information on the stormwater initiative specifically, please contact Jason Washington at City First Enterprises. If you are a funder considering supporting the Community Wealth Building initiative, please contact Tamara Copeland at WRAG.