Louisville Turns Over a Green Leaf

Growing up in Louisville I was accustomed to a home town with a few things that were world class: college basketball, a premier horse racing event, a great bluegrass festival, and even good bratwurst at Oktoberfest. Meanwhile, Louisville was hardly known for progressive environmental protection. In fact, Louisville was rather notorious on the water quality scene, better recognized for disaster than innovation. I grew up in the Beargrass Creek Watershed, which was permanently posted as unsafe for body contact activities because of sewer overflows. We played in the creek anyway, and in retrospect I wonder if any of those ‘stomach bugs’ we occasionally suffered were related to exposure to pathogens in untreated wastewater. I was in high school in 1977 when Kentucky Liquid Recycling dumped a toxic mix of chemicals into the sewer system effectively shutting down city-wide wastewater treatment; untreated sewage was discharged directly to the Ohio River for months while the plant and the sewer system were decontaminated. I was at the University of Louisville in 1981when Ralston Purina released hexane into the sewer system and blew up miles of streets in the downtown area, including on campus directly in front of the dorm in which I was living. I still recall being awakened by the explosion, and sitting in a dark hallway with the rest of the woman on my floor anxiously speculating about what had happened.

I’m happy to say that I can now be cautiously optimistic, a little proud even, of how Louisville is responding to their federal and state mandates to finally resolve their water quality problems. While most cities with combined and sanitary sewer overflows continue to take traditional grey infrastructure approaches by building large storage, conveyance and end-of-pipe treatment systems, Louisville is among a few notable cities who have decided to “go green”. Unlike grey technologies, green approaches provide a multitude of benefits in addition to water quality improvement. They generally are also more cost-effective over the long-term. However, because most wastewater engineers are still tentative about technologies other than pipes, pumps, filters and flocculants, green approaches still aren’t mainstream. Louisville has undertaken the necessary environmental and economic analyses, and determined that green infrastructure makes a lot more sense for the community. They have committed to spend millions of dollars on wide-spread implementation of green roofs, green streets, urban reforestation, and other elements of a comprehensive green infrastructure program. Yes, that’s lots of money, but consider that they’ve determined that these solutions will actually SAVE them millions of dollars compared to grey technologies, while providing ancillary benefits that pumps and pipes could not. Though I’m not necessarily expecting to see a vegetated roof on the twin spires of Churchill Downs the next time I visit (though how cool would that be), I do expect to see Louisville transform itself with greener streets, campuses, roofs, parks, and alleys over the next decade or so. That’s good news for Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River, and great for the Louisville community as well.

About the Author: Jenny Molloy is an aquatic biologist currently working in Washington DC as USEPA’s green infrastructure coordinator. She was raised in Louisville, Kentucky.