SEPTA's Water Footprint (Goal 2)

March 4, 2011

As we consider SEPTA's overall environmental footprint, it is important to remember that its impacts extend beyond climate change and air quality. The services that SEPTA provides to the region - and the facilities that support those services - also consume resources that factor into its environmental impacts. Today, we describe one of those resources: water.

For years, scientists and policy experts have predicted water to become "the next oil" - a resource whose scarcity has been known to developing nations for years, but is only now reaching the point of crisis in the developed world. In 2007, the city of Atlanta got a first-hand view of this crisis when Lake Lanier, the region's primary water supply, dropped to its lowest levels in a century. Most agree that, given the combination of shifting climate patterns and soaring demand from emerging global economies, water scarcity is problem that is not going away.

Recent Developments

SEPTA is committed to doing its part to reduce its water footprint, and has taken strides in recent years to curb consumption across the region. By far the largest consumer of water in SEPTA's system are its vehicle washers, which are equipped with recycling mechanisms that reuse the same water for multiple washings. The water recycling systems are also designed to filter contaminants, thereby minimizing pollution impacts generated by washer facilities.

But SEPTA's water footprint extends beyond metered consumption. As an owner of large, impervious surface areas (station-area parking lots and maintenance facilities, in particular), SEPTA also contributes to non-point source pollution through stormwater runoff. During heavy rain events, stormwater can cause flooding and become a major source of pollution for the region's rivers and streams.

Until last year, stormwater fees were administered as a surcharge added onto water bills. But in 2010, the City of Philadelphia began a four-year phase-in of a new approach to allocate commercial and industrial water fees. Designed to be revenue neutral, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) has a new billing structure that will now include the extent of impervious surface area to account for a property's relative contribution to stormwater runoff. Its goal: to capture the first inch of all rainwater at the ground surface.

Now, what was once an environmental imperative is also a fiscal imperative. For SEPTA, the impact of PWD's new stormwater allocation fee is threefold: 1) a reduction in water bills at facilities with a small impervious footprint and high levels of metered consumption (administrative buildings); 2) an increase in water bills at facilities with a large impervious footprint and low levels of metered consumption (garages); and 3) new water bills at facilities with impervious surface but no metered consumption (parking lots).

In the net, SEPTA expects a rise in City water bills from this change in billing structure. And yet, opportunities exist to quickly turn the new fee allocation into a net savings. To act on this imperative, SEPTA has begun to pursue a menu of stormwater management strategies that will both reduce its water footprint and generate utility cost savings. Initiatives include:

Roof Rainwater Recapture. At 46th Street Station on the Market Frankford Line, SEPTA has partnered with The Enterprise Center to redirect the station's downspout to harvest rainwater in a cistern and use it to irrigate the new Walnut Hill Community Farm being developed in an adjacent SEPTA-owned lot. SEPTA has leased the lot to the Enterprise Center, which will develop the farm in conjunction with the Community Design Collaborative.

46th Street Station - Piping and Cistern

Bus Bumpouts. SEPTA's surface transportation department has partnered with PWD and the Philadelphia Streets Department on a pilot program to design new bus "bumpouts" in South Philadelphia to capture stormwater at the surface and mitigate runoff. In so doing, the project will incorporate storm water management techniques into a traditional transit service improvement project to both reduce dwell time and provide an environmental benefit.

Tree Plantings. Trees reduce stormwater runoff by capturing rainfall in the tree canopy, storing it, and then releasing water back into the atmosphere. The presence of trees also helps to slow runoff, decreasing flooding and soil erosion. SEPTA has planted 534 trees since 2008, including 127 in Philadelphia. Many of these tree plantings were associated with station-improvement projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of February 2009.


A Plan to Improve Performance

SEPTA has established a goal to improve water use and pollutant discharge performance and will use water utility bills as a proxy for metered consumption and stormwater runoff. The goal: reduce water-related expenditures by 10 percent by 2015. Like greenhouse gas emissions, performance will be measured on an intensity basis as indicated by cost per vehicle mile, revenue vehicle hour, and passenger mile traveled. Progress will be tracked against a 2009 baseline:

  • Water Expenditures/Vehicle Mile: $0.0185
  • Water Expenditures/Revenue Vehicle Hour: $0.2577
  • Water Expenditures/Passenger Mile Traveled: $0.0012

These intensity measures will ensure that SEPTA's water and stormwater reduction goals are aligned with other service-related initiatives. Reduction strategies include:

Track usage systemwide. SEPTA is in the process of building a comprehensive database of water consumption and stormwater runoff charges and will use this information to instruct strategic planning to reduce its regional footprint.

Evaluate cost-effective opportunities to reduce meter size. Water consumption rates are based on both usage and service charges. The service charges are based on meter size irrespective of consumption levels. For this reason, SEPTA can reduce water expenses by downsizing meters wherever possible.

Install roof rainwater collection systems. SEPTA's collaboration at 46th Street Station in West Philadelphia is just one of many opportunities to partner with local community groups to harvest rainwater for innovative uses. SEPTA is also evaluating the cost-effectiveness of installing "green roofs," which cover impervious surface areas with pervious vegetation capable of absorbing rainwater.

Conduct an analysis of water recycling mechanisms on vehicle washer systems. Vehicle washing systems are the largest consumer of water in SEPTA's system. To reduce consumption, SEPTA should evaluate these systems to ensure they are operating at peak efficiency. If they are not, SEPTA should determine whether cost-effective opportunities exist to improve performance.

Capture and recycle water for reuses. SEPTA engineers fight a constant battle to keep groundwater from rising into subway tunnels, relying on automatic pumps to keep water out. Rather than discharge the greywater into the sewer system, SEPTA could capture the pumped water for other uses in its subway stations or in nearby buildings. Elsewhere, recapturing water discharged from transformers could be used in other functions, such as at vehicle washers.

Improve stormwater control and reduce stormwater runoff. Through a variety of landscape design and planning methods, SEPTA has begun to reduce its nonporous surface footprint and control stormwater flows through its property. Stormwater runoff mitigation now has a measurable return on investment given PWD's new price structure, making these planning efforts increasingly justifiable from a financial perspective.

Above Ground Infiltration Basin at Wayne Station

Improve water fixtures and conservation at SEPTA facilities. Water fixtures at public facilities are a visible demonstration of SEPTA's water conservation policies, and conservation efforts in these places will yield both measurable and intangible returns for the Authority. Automatic water faucets, already installed at its 1234 Market Street headquarters, and other readily available, water-efficient fixtures will reduce SEPTA's water use and communicate its sustainability mission to the public.

Expand tree planting by partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. SEPTA should continue to explore opportunities to accelerate tree-planting efforts in conjunction with its own capital projects, but also partner with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to find new opportunities for tree-planting at or near SEPTA facilities. Doing so will help to mitigate stormwater runoff and bring the City and region closer to its shared tree-planting goals.

Partner with stakeholders to protect natural habitats. SEPTA's large footprint in the region includes a variety of important natural habitats, and SEPTA should act as a responsible steward of these ecological treasures in partnership with local organizations. The Philadelphia Water Department has undertaken the Cobbs Creek Restoration Project to restore an EPA "impaired" local waterway, and SEPTA has agreed to play a role because of the creek's proximity to both the Norristown High Speed Line and SEPTA's 69th Street Terminal. Partnerships like this enable SEPTA to leverage its position as a major area landowner to facilitate the environmental rehabilitation initiatives of other organizations.


What's Next

SEP-TAINABLE's outwardly-facing environmental goals - 1) to improve greenhouse gas and criteria air pollutant emissions performance; and 2) to improve water use and pollutant discharge performance - are supported by internally focused goals to reduce waste and energy consumption. Next week, we'll begin a series describing SEPTA's energy portfolio and initiatives to bolster its standing as an industry leader in energy efficiency.

Next Week: SEPTA's Energy Portfolio