Effective public private partnerships for clean water and justice

rain garden

Nationally, approximately $4-$8 billion/year in local funding is being used to help offset the harmful effects of urban stormwater runoff, clean up local rivers, lakes and bays, or improve sources of drinking water.  Maryland counties have spent more than $1 billion in local funds on green infrastructure and stormwater projects, with goals to help improve the Chesapeake Bay.

Our report, “Stormwater innovation,” looks at how two of the leading local governments in the country are succeeding or failing in work to deliver effective stormwater projects on public and private land.

Montgomery County, Maryland, was once a national leader in running an effective stormwater program, but has fallen behind on permit requirements and progress in dealing with polluted stormwater runoff.  Meanwhile nearby Prince George’s County, once lagging on stormwater treatment progress, is quickly catching up.  Prince George’s is already known for its innovations in financing stormwater projects and building one of the country’s largest environmental Public Private Partnerships with Corvias, Inc. to make it happen.

Stormwater programs can be structured to improve water quality, but also provide valuable social outcomes—like minority jobs and local employment.  We’ve seen that come true in Prince George’s County.

The report provides concrete actions that incoming Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council can take to improve its next contracts.  Incoming Prince George’s County’s Executive, Angela Alsobrooks, has an easy opportunity to simply continue a nationally-recognized and locally successful program that will be able to deliver its biggest benefits on her watch.

Key findings:

  • Almost 15% of the potential stormwater projects still being considered would cost more than $200,000/acre. Prince George’s County is delivering its projects for an average of less than $50,000/acre.  There were good reasons that County Executive Leggett tried to cancel some of these projects.
  • Prince George’s County has long used, and Montgomery County is starting to use, extremely low interest borrowing to build green infrastructure faster, backed by federal programs like EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
  • Montgomery County’s two innovative “Pay for Success” contracts are working as intended. They’ve resulted in extremely low predicted costs for two stormwater projects and have resulted in no public spending (i.e. no taxpayer risk) because clean water results haven’t been delivered yet.  Pay for Success programs have enormous promise to help local government deliver stronger and faster environmental and social outcomes.
  • Prince George’s County, in partnership with Corvias, delivered its 2,000-acre treatment goal on or ahead of schedule and Corvias appears to have met all the benchmarks that would allow them to negotiate a second round of 2,000 acres of projects.
  • The Public Private Partnership in Prince George’s County has been instrumental in directing more than 90% of spending to local jobs and purchasing. More than 80% of subcontracts went to minority- and woman-owned firms.
  • Montgomery County’s new approach, currently in a Request for Proposals stage, would fund $35-$40 million in stormwater projects at a high per acre construction cost, with few incentives for stronger environmental or social outcomes, like local jobs, wildlife habitat, or recreational benefits.
  • Montgomery County’s new approach of combining green infrastructure project design, with construction and 10 years of maintenance means that project completion is likely to be more efficient, have fewer cost overruns and lower county administrative costs. But the effectiveness is constrained because the County Council required the bidders to choose at least 10 of the county’s suspended designs to build.  In the future, having the County set stronger programmatic goals and giving contractors more freedom to find the best locations, work with the public, and build them will create a more successful, cost-effective program that can keep resident’s stormwater fees down and still keep hitting important goals for improving the Chesapeake Bay.

Why does it matter

Urban and suburban stormwater runoff is one of the biggest threats to the Chesapeake Bay and other important water bodies around the country.  Unchecked stormwater kills fish, floods homes, and damages local streams.  Finding cost effective ways to control or offset the problem is critical for local ecosystems and economies.

If counties that govern millions of people can model effective ways to fund stormwater projects, finance green infrastructure, and build projects efficiently and with strong public support, they create a path for others to follow.  It literally redefines what’s possible.

If local government can also do so in ways that address environmental injustice, deliver jobs to disadvantaged minorities and create aesthetic benefits in lower income communities, stormwater programs will deserve the support of the diverse communities that local government serves.

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