On February 19th, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) launched its new Green Infrastructure Grant Program. With a goal of reducing the amount of stormwater runoff entering SFPUC’s sewer system and improving system performance while also providing co-benefits like urban greening. The program provides grant funds to local public and private property owners throughout San Francisco to build green infrastructure and manage stormwater onsite. Sarah Bloom, a Watershed Planner with the SFPUC, describes the new program as, “the culmination of significant planning and extensive stakeholder outreach to build a meaningful tool for local property owners and the SFPUC as we work to reach our citywide stormwater management goals.”

Much of San Francisco is served by a combined sewer system (CSS) which transports wastewater and stormwater in the same pipe to the City’s wastewater treatment plants. During heavy rainstorms this combined system can become overwhelmed and discharge into adjacent waterbodies before reaching the treatment plant.  As part of its efforts to sustainably manage and improve performance, the SFPUC has a long-term vision of managing 1 billion gallons of stormwater per year using green infrastructure by 2050.

To realize this vision, SFPUC is implementing a city-wide green infrastructure strategy that utilizes a three-pronged approach of regulation, incentives, and capital projects. Under this strategy, as of March 2019, 93 million gallons of stormwater is already being managed by green infrastructure every year, with over 20 million gallons in additional performance currently in the pipeline.  Now, the SFPUC—with the Green Infrastructure Grant Program—will also incentivize San Francisco property owners to add to this progress.  The grant program provides funding to large, highly impervious public and private properties to install rain gardens, permeable pavement, cisterns, and/or vegetated roofs, among other green stormwater infrastructure strategies.  In particular, this program includes at least 5 key elements that other urban water providers interested in becoming even more sustainable and resilient can model.

  1. Focus on performance-based, multi-benefit green stormwater infrastructure. SFPUC’s innovative program provides funding for approved projects that are designed to capture runoff from the 90th percentile storm—the equivalent of retaining 0.75-inches of rain. In addition to stormwater performance, projects must also demonstrate that they provide at least two co-benefits from SFPUC’s specified list, including that the project is in or serves an environmental justice community, is publicly accessible, recharges groundwater, reuses stormwater, provides educational opportunities, provides job training opportunities, or increases native habitat/biodiversity. These co-benefits were selected to support existing SFPUC policies and priorities.  A project proponent can meet the majority of the co-benefit criteria through prioritization in design.By using performance-based eligibility criteria and requiring that projects provide co-benefits, SFPUC has more certainty that projects on privately owned property will help the utility meet its goal to manage 1 billion gallons per year of stormwater with green infrastructure by 2050 and that the projects advance community ideals beyond stormwater management.
  2. Provide clear guidelines and resources for grantees. Due to the scale and complexity of average projects in the program, the SFPUC developed a rigorous application process to ensure technical feasibility of the proposed stormwater projects and the team’s capacity to deliver it. In addition to the performance-based and multi-benefit criteria, the grant team must also demonstrate previous experience designing, constructing, and/or maintaining green infrastructure projects at a similar size and scale.To assist potential grantees not just through the application process but also throughout the life of the grant, the SFPUC has compiled several resources and guidance materials, including a Green Infrastructure Grant Program Guidebook, Example Concept Designs, Design Checklists, and a Grant Program Map delineating the CSS, MS4, and environmental justice communities among other items. SFPUC also conducts a pre-application meeting with potential grantees to ensure that the project meets all of the minimum requirements and to discuss the proposed stormwater management concept before the potential grantee submits their application. Each of these steps is designed to facilitate and smooth out the grant application process.  “It takes more effort upfront, but we hope to get it back in projects that have well developed concept designs and are successful throughout the full grant process,” said Sarah.
  3. Leverage long-term maintenance with the property owners. Under the SFPUC’s new grant program, the property owners are responsible for maintenance of the green infrastructure projects for a duration of 20 years. This is to ensure the projects perform for their useful life.  The property owner’s agreement to operate and maintain the approved project is documented in the Stormwater Management Agreement. Property owners must also record against the selected property a Declaration of Deed Restrictions notifying subsequent property owners of the obligation to maintain the project during the 20-year term, which can be released upon request at the end of the term.  The agreement also outlines the SFPUC’s role of conducting periodic inspections of the project throughout the 20-year term to evaluate whether it is meeting the established performance standards.This shared operation and maintenance responsibility helps SFPUC maximize its ability to build green stormwater infrastructure throughout San Francisco by leveraging property owner’s willingness to participate in this transformative program.
  4. Provide meaningful grant amounts. The maximum grant award is $765,000 per acre of impervious surface managed, and up to $2 million in total funding per project for the first two years of the grant program.  Smaller grant programs often require the same level of administrative support as larger programs, so setting a minimum project size and incentivizing large projects through high grant amounts was important to help ensure cost-effectiveness of these projects.  The SFPUC has allocated $6.4M in grant funding for the first 2 years of the program, with the hope that demand demonstrates a desire for subsequent years of funding.This funding level is aimed at incentivizing large-scale projects that retrofit significant portions of impervious areas across San Francisco. For example, ideal projects include those that change out impervious areas at local retail stores or school yards for rain gardens, permeable pavement, vegetated roofs, and bioswales.
  5. Conduct extensive stakeholder and public outreach. To get the word out SFPUC is conducting extensive stakeholder and other public outreach. These efforts include a detailed program website, program workshops, FAQs, targeted outreach to stakeholders, and media and social media promotion. Because this is a voluntary program community and stakeholder engagement is vital to success. In addition, the SFPUC also conducted 6 months of stakeholder engagement during the program development to help inform the program structure.  “We wanted to make sure we created a program that people were able to participate in,” said Sarah.

As SFPUC’s program shows, deploying localized green stormwater infrastructure on public and private property is the 21st century way of meeting infrastructure challenges. If you’re interested in learning more about green infrastructure and other localized water infrastructure check out WaterNow’s Tap into Resilience website where you can do a deep dive into why decentralized water strategies are faster, cheaper, and better for communities — both the people and the environment.

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