Green Infrastructure in Onondaga County

By Nancy Stoner

Last month, I traveled to Syracuse, New York. Syracuse is located in Onondaga County, which is one of EPA’s “model communities” for green infrastructure because of the county’s “Save the Rain” campaign, which is a unique partnership between the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County and others to build nearly 100 green infrastructure projects over three years. The goal of these projects is to prevent polluted water from entering Onondaga Lake, which historically suffered from high levels of industrial and stormwater toxins.

With assistance from EPA, NY Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University, Syracuse Center of Excellence and its partners, and many others, green infrastructure is being used to slow the flow of stormwater, allowing it to make its way back into the ground where it can be filtered as part of the water cycle.

During my visit to Syracuse, I was in awe of efforts to quickly introduce widespread green infrastructure. What makes Syracuse and Onondaga County unique is the sheer number of projects that they are simultaneously undertaking. I saw construction everywhere as workers were laying greener sidewalks, planting trees and repaving roads with porous asphalt.

Onondaga County is also taking green infrastructure to the top of local buildings. The roof of the War Memorial Arena now houses rain-capturing cisterns that supply the water for the arena’s minor league hockey rink. I learned that treated rain freezes harder than tap water, so the hockey team prefers to skate on the more durable, rainwater-harvested ice. Also, the roof of the County’s convention center is now green. The building’s 66,000 square-foot roof is covered in plants – making it one of the largest green roofs in the northeast. These two projects alone will prevent over one million gallons of polluted water from entering Onondaga Lake each year.

Efforts to improve water quality go well beyond the city’s infrastructure and infiltrate the community. To complete many of their green infrastructure projects, officials support neighborhood businesses by hiring local contractors and manufacturers. Projects also span into the suburbs where households can receive free rain barrels and water-harvesting training. Officials are also working to connect students with their surroundings. Through the Onondaga Earth Corps, students participate in environmental service projects that teach them about their relationship with the environment. This program prepares local youth to become the next generation of innovative thinkers who develop the latest technologies and trends in green infrastructure.

About the author: Nancy Stoner is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of  Water