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How can communities reduce carbon emissions while preparing for climate change impacts?

Chapter 6 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 7 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #6: Sometimes greenhouse gas mitigation and climate adaptation goals will conflict; but often times communities can reduce emissions while preparing for impacts.

With the 2014 National Climate Assessment detailing climate change impacts that are currently being felt in all 50 U.S. states, communities around the country are grappling with how to simultaneously adapt to these impacts and reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so on a large scale will be key to making sure that efforts to adapt to climate change don’t exacerbate the problem, and instead build towards communities that are less reliant on greenhouse gases—in itself a form of adaptation to a climate-changed world. Small-scale examples are beginning to show that this is possible. Continue reading

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How can communities overcome the upfront costs of adaptation?

Chapter 5 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 6 coming soon.

Take home lesson #5: A key challenge for funding adaptation efforts is finding ways to overcome upfront investment costs in order to save money in the long run. Creative financing mechanisms and savvy individuals can pave the way.

The World Bank has estimated that it will cost between $70 billion and $100 billion annually to adapt to a 3.6-degree-Fahrenheit warmer world by 2050. However, these figures depend strongly on whether our adaptation efforts are proactive or reactive: The United Nations Development Programme estimates that every dollar spent on preparedness for disasters now can save up to seven in relief efforts later. But what does this mean for a local city planner or natural resource manager trying to attach a price tag to a resilience-building project at the local level? Continue reading

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How can new partnerships help build resilience?

Chapter 4 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 5 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #4: Resilience efforts that span multiple government departments or include non-governmental actors are often able to leverage resources and expertise and create wider buy-in for action.

For local governments, the ability to prepare for the impacts of climate change is often limited by available resources and expertise. In some cases, local governments have the motivation to lead adaptation action but lack capacity and knowledge in areas like coordinating volunteers and implementing new technological tools. In other instances, non-profit groups or individual citizens may ‘push’ local government to act. By creating new partnerships across government departments as well as beyond government doors, city planners may be able to fill critical gaps in their own resources, accomplish ambitious goals, and more effectively address the cross-cutting nature of climate change impacts.

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Oysters + rocks + marsh grass = living shoreline at Pine Knoll Shores
in North Carolina

How can communities keep up with climate change?

Chapter 2 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown University Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 3 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #2: Minimizing vulnerability to climate risks means both iterative, long-term planning and emergency management, depending on the likelihood and intensity of the impact.

Some climate change impacts are gradual and will affect areas we can pinpoint with moderate certainty—sea-level rise, for instance, is generally projected over long time horizons and vulnerable places along the coast are usually identifiable. Other impacts are sudden, extreme, and often unexpected—hurricane intensity, for example, is expected to increase, and we know those storms will occur somewhere at some time, but exactly where and when is incredibly challenging to forecast beyond a few days. When doing an adaptation project in a particular place, the risk—both the likelihood and the intensity of the climate impact—affects the perceived urgency of efforts to prepare, the scope of the options available, and the potential to be successful.

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During our stay, the intersection of 5th and Pennsylvania was closed due to flooding from rainstorms.

What drives communities to take action to adapt to climate change?

Chapter 1 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown University Climate Center to get this to you. Stay tuned for Chapter 2.

Take-home lesson #1: Many drivers motivate communities to pursue initiatives that enhance resilience to climate change impacts; projects that have multiple benefits are more likely to be implemented.

As climate change impacts such as more intense coastal storms, hotter heat waves, bigger floods, and more extreme droughts emerge across the U.S., communities are responding and preparing in myriad ways. At the heart of most action is people’s desire to protect and improve the place where they live, but this core motivation manifests itself differently in different settings. Some communities are driven to action by the ‘wake-up call’ of a hurricane or another disastrous event that exposes vulnerabilities. Some communities find that resiliency to climate impacts is yet another benefit of neighborhood initiatives such as tree planting or smart zoning that enhance quality of life. And some communities may not be thinking about climate change at all but nevertheless implement projects that help them weather the storm or the drought. Understanding what motivates people to build resilience is key when it comes to designing incentives, determining what information people will use to make decisions, and communicating the need for a project.

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Lessons Learned About Life in the ‘New Normal’

When we tell people that we spent 103 days together traveling around the United States reporting the ways Americans are adapting to the impacts of climate change, the first question we usually get is: “And you’re still friends?” The second question is: “What did you learn?”

Our new report, published by the Georgetown Climate Center, answers this second question. Through it, we distill six lessons learned about resilience from the dozens of communities we visited over the course of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip.

report coverThe lessons are:

1) Communities have many reasons for building resilience, and the co-benefits of climate adaptation projects are often key to getting them implemented. Think: The dune habitat restoration project in Galveston, Texas that provides natural storm protection but also engaged 300 inner city Houston youth.

2) The likelihood and magnitude of the climate impact itself affects the nature of the resilience-building actions that can be taken. For instance, gradual sea-level rise allows for iterative, long-term planning in North Carolina while emergency planning is the way to go when facing sudden, extreme events such as flash floods, hurricanes, or forest fires.

3) Scaled-down climate science is essential for local planning and decision-making in many sectors. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, researchers ran local data through global models to find that sea-level rise in the area will be slightly slower than Boston but faster than in the Pacific Northwest.

4) New relationships and partnerships across local governments and with private and non-profit allies can leverage the key skills needed to adapt to a changing climate. Cases in point: Airbnb partnering with San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management to offer safe havens during disaster, or various city departments in Baltimore coming together to combat the urban heat island effect.

5) Communities need new funding and financing models to enable the investment needed to adapt to climate change. For example, a stormwater utility fee in Ann Arbor, Michigan has raised $5 million to reinvest in public flood protection projects and an urban tree program.

6) Sometimes adaptation and mitigation goals will conflict; but often times communities can reduce emissions while preparing for impacts. Our podcast from Long Island, New York explains how a post-Superstorm Sandy solar boom is both cutting carbon emissions and preparing residents for the next storm.

Our report fleshes out each of these lessons, highlighting specific adaptation stories that illustrate the point as well as key “faces of resilience”—people who serve as the linchpin of resilience efforts in their community. As Georgetown Climate Center Executive Director Vicki Arroyo and University of Michigan Professor Rosina Bierbaum write in the foreward: “This report brings to life what it really means to prepare for, survive, and thrive in a ‘new normal.'”

You can check out the report here, but we’ll also be posting its six main chapters one by one over the next couple of weeks in hopes of fostering discussion.

The 'Pleasure Pier' amusement park was built after Hurricane Ike. It might be in trouble during the next hurricane.

What does adapting to climate change look like?

You’ve heard a lot about the scary impacts of climate change – and with the recent release of the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, it’s clear that in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, communities all over the world need to begin adapting (preparing, building resilience, insert whichever phrase you like best there) to the irreversible climate changes we’re already starting to see.

So what does ‘adapting’ to climate change actually look like?

If you’ve wondered that too, you can take a (short version) of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip with us and find out. Watch the video recording of a lecture we recently gave at the New England Aquarium. We take you to Boston Harbor, Long Island, the Louisiana Bayou, the forests of New Mexico, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, the corn fields of Nebraska and Iowa, and, finally, to our hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Comment, pose questions, get in touch. We want to keep talking about this.

Many residents who lived through Sandy are now raising their homes so they can be better prepared for the next storm. First-floor garages are built to be ‘floodable’ and give the added benefit of off-street parking.

Still Reeling from Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Town Plans for Sequel

By Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein

July 20-21, 2014

Nearly two years after Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, the main drag in the town of Sea Bright, looks almost normal again. Beach-goers unload umbrellas and coolers from the oceanside parking lot. Restaurant-goers order brunch at the sidewalk cafes. Mrs. Rooney, the widow of Sea Bright’s former mayor, is stationed at her hot dog stand, which first opened in 1965. 

Sea Bright’s 1,400 or so permanent residents put on a good face to get the tourists that are the lifeblood of their economy back in town. But it only takes a slightly closer look to see the wounds below the band-aids.

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Walking the Floodplain to Protect Historic Portsmouth from Sea Level Rise

Portsmouth, NH

Kirsten Howard

With the road trip part of the Adaptation Stories project now complete, I’m walking along narrow brick lined streets through the Historic District of my new hometown: Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This quaint Atlantic Seacoast community was the third settled U.S. city, so the homes in the South End neighborhood are historic gems. Some played host to George Washington in the 1700s, while others housed factory workers in a more industrial era.

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Kirsten and Allie get irrigated by drop nozzle system in Georgia

On Flood and Thirst: How Communities Are Adapting to the Age of Unpredictable Water

In Keene, New Hampshire, Duncan Watson looks out the window with trepidation as rain pounds the glass of his office at the Public Works Department; in 2005, a flood in his hometown killed seven people. And across the country in Santa Fe, New Mexico, forest fuels specialist Bill Armstrong fears he’s losing a race against the clock to thin and prescriptively burn the tree-crowded national forest before a prolonged drought sets the stage for another mega-fire.

What do these two men have in common? They’re on opposite sides of the same coin, dealing with the consequences of what Watson calls a “caffeinated climate” in which change is not so much about the slowly rising thermostat, but about more pronounced extremes, from very wet to very dry.

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Our Road Trip in 7 Minutes

2 friends. 1 minivan. 31 states. 103 days. 17,358 miles. 158 interviews. 32 adaptation stories. Watch the 7-minute version of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip.

David Sieck planted DuPont Pioneer's Optimum AQUAmax corn this year.

Fighting Drought with a New Super Corn

Gothenburg, Nebraska to Belmond, Iowa

August 14-17, 2013

So how exactly do you win a tilling competition? We’re at the Prairie Homestead Antique Power and Country Craft Show in Belmond, Iowa, of all places, watching farmers on tractors practicing for the next day’s tillage contest.

Farmers practicing for the next day's tilling competition in Belmond, IA

Farmers practicing for the next day’s tilling competition in Belmond, IA

“You drive as straight as you can,” David Sieck, of Glenwood, Iowa, tells us. Sieck, a former president and current board member of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, has been growing field corn (used for animal feed and ethanol) in Iowa for over 35 years.

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Cracking the Case of the Vanishing Oyster Larvae

Olympic Peninsula, WA

July 28-August 1, 2013

Algae grown in these tanks will feed oyster larvae at Taylor Shellfish's hatchery

Algae grown in these tanks will feed oyster larvae at Taylor Shellfish’s hatchery

The algae tanks that line the walls of Taylor Shellfish Farms hatchery in Quilcene, Washington are varying shades of emerald greens and beer-like browns. Each one holds a different gourmet meal for oyster larvae. The chief hatchery scientist, Benoit Eudeline, weaves through the tanks looking relieved.

“These look good,” he says. “We’ve been having some trouble growing algae lately. If it’s not problems with the larvae it’s always something else.”

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Sharing Shelter in San Francisco

July 23-25, 2013

San Francisco, CA

From Nashville, Tennessee to Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Osos, California, Airbnb has been a favorite tool for finding accommodations on the road. If you aren’t familiar with it, Airbnb is an increasingly popular online platform through which people rent their spare room or extra apartment to travelers passing through town. The company is revolutionizing the bed & breakfast business—an in-house study found that Airbnb contributed $56 million to the San Francisco economy in 2011 and a whopping $240 million to Paris’s economy in 2012. Continue reading

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Why Climate Change Is Not the End of Wine

July 26, 2013

Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley has often found itself featured in national newspapers and magazines as the paparazzied ‘poster child’ of climate change impacts on agriculture. Recent media coverage has been based on two studies: One 2011 study out of Stanford suggests the land suitable for premium grapes in Northern California could be cut in half by 2040, while vineyards might thrive in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And a 2013 study led by Conservation International, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, predicts a two-thirds drop in production in the world’s major wine-growing regions, including Napa Valley.

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Joshua trees pepper the Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park

Preventing a Joshua Treeless National Park

July 21-22

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The desert has much to teach us about the marvels of adaptation. Relentless sun, little water, and summer temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit can make a forbidding world for non-desert dwellers. Yet hundreds of species conserve moisture and beat the heat in fascinating ways. –Joshua Tree National Park visitor’s map

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Mesquite at the Table

July 19, 2013

Tucson, Arizona

When Laurie Melrood, a social worker who counsels undocumented immigrants, moved to Tucson a decade ago, her motto changed from ‘eat your garden’ to ‘eat your yard.’ It wasn’t an easy transition. For a while, she brooded about the soil conditions behind her house. Then, one afternoon, a Yaqui friend came over, climbed a tree, and started shaking down mesquite pods. Melrood hadn’t given the trees much thought before this moment—in fact, she’d swept the pods off her patio to throw them away. But the stubborn desert plant soon captivated her, and today, Melrood holds mesquite workshops at her home a dozen times a year. She teaches the history and uses of mesquite, then takes the group to harvest pods from trees at nearby Joaquin Murietta Park.

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Some forest management near the Dillon Reservoir.

Denver Residents Pay Forest Service to Keep Their Water Clean

July 11-14, 2013

Denver, CO

As we stand at the Dillon Reservoir in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, we’re daunted by the expanse of water. Sailboats and speedboats zip back and forth, enjoying the summer season. At one end, the water is mostly contained by a high cement wall but for a steady stream slipping over the dam on its way to Denver. Abutting the reservoir is the White River National Forest, made up mostly of lodgepole pine trees. Some trees are laid barren by the pine beetle, some scarred by fire, some still healthy.

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Some ripening peaches at Black Bridge Winery

Colorado Fruit Growers Harness Wind, Water, and Fire to Save Harvest

July 8-10, 2013

Paonia & Hotchkiss, Colorado

Glenn Austin started farming on his family’s organic dairy and tobacco farm in Tennessee at the ripe age of five. As a young man, he worked for Monsanto, but after several years Austin decided petrochemical fertilizers weren’t for him, so he and his wife made the move from Tennessee to the Western Slopes of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to plant a sustainable orchard. This year he turns 70 and marks his 43rd year farming in Paonia. When we hopped on Austin’s golf cart to tour his family farm, which sits high on a mesa in the North Fork Valley, things were in full swing. Continue reading

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To Restore the Coast, Galveston Gets Kids and Grown-ups in the Same Boat

Galveston, TX

July 1, 2013

This story is dedicated to Ann Graham, who devoted her life to teaching. She was a loving mother, wife, and friend. She was also gifted with an enviable green thumb.

“I just learned how to drive stick shift last month,” Kari Howard chuckled apologetically as she drove us around Galveston Bay, a little jerky in a big, standard transmission Ford truck. We were headed to a sand dune restoration site Howard helped with in the coastal town of Galveston, Texas.

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Wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico protect homes from storm sturges and store carbon.

Gulf Utility Invests in the True Value of Wetlands

The Gulf of Mexico

June 27 – July 2

Charlie Broussard, a shrimper on the docks in Cocodrie, Louisiana, has seen the wetlands he paddled through as a kid shift dramatically—literally. In fact, the Louisiana coastline is changing so quickly that fisherman and oil rig workers who have spent their lives navigating the bayou by boat sometimes get lost as familiar landmarks are drowned. In Louisiana, 1,880 square miles of land have vanished since the 1930s, and the current rate of land loss is equivalent to a football field every 38 minutes.

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Julia Kumari Drapkin (left) tells road trippers Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein a thing or two about New Orleans snowballs (and storytelling).

An Almanac in the Age of Climate Change

New Orleans, Louisiana

June 28, 2013

Julia Kumari Drapkin originally wanted to start iSeeChange, a media project that connects citizen observers and climate scientists, in New Orleans. As a Florida native who grew up swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, Drapkin never imagined herself living in Paonia, Colorado, (generous) population estimate: 2,000.

So when the producer at KVNF, the local radio station in Paonia, asked her to bring her Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant there, Drapkin found the town on a map. She had covered climate science from the Arctic to Mongolia to Australia and had a hunch that there was more to the simplified story about the ‘climate debate’ in the United States. After talking with the producer, Drapkin realized that Paonia—an eclectic town of coal miners, fruit farmers, and journalists in the North Fork Valley—was the perfect place to rethink that story.

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EvacuSpot reflected in the bus window.

New Orleans Gives Evacuation Plan an Artist’s Touch

New Orleans, Louisiana

June 27-28, 2013

As we drive down North Rampart Street in New Orleans, we pass a fourteen-foot tall, steel statue of a person with one arm outstretched as if to hail a ride. Its pose seems symbolic as much as aesthetic, drawing people to it as if to say, “stick with me and I will guide you.” And that’s exactly what the statue does, because it marks an ‘EvacuSpot.’

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Queen Quet, Unedited

Saint Helena Island, South Carolina

June 22, 2013

The Gullah/Geechee people, descendants of enslaved Africans captured in Angola and other parts of the Western Seaboard of Africa who now stretch from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, do not have a word for “adaptation” or “resiliency” in their Creole language. And yet, as Queen Quet, the elected head-of-state for the Gullah/Geechee, explains in the (unedited) clip above, the Gullah/Geechee are an incredibly resilient people: they maintained their culture through slavery and today continue traditional farming practices on family compounds.

“What we understand, or overstand as I like to say—that’s what others call adapting,” Queen Quet said. “We call it living.”

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Searching for Shade in Louisville

Louisville, Kentucky

June 12-13, 2013

Known for its derbies and its Olmsted parks; Louisville, Kentucky, is also gaining notoriety as the city with the fastest growing urban heat island in the country, according to research at the Georgia Tech Urban Climate Lab. We wanted to find out what people in Louisville are doing to prepare and protect themselves against the heat. Watch Louisville’s story about the citizens who are banding together to get trees in the ground.

To view more photos click here.

Increasing the urban canopy is one way to fight heat in Baltimore, Maryland

Keeping Baltimore Neighborhoods Cool

Baltimore, Maryland

June 4, 2013

Baltimore is known as the “city of neighborhoods.” Kristin Baja, the new Hazard Mitigation and Adaptation Planner for the city, is working on learning the names of all 225 of them. She’s eight months into job and doing pretty well so far—as we drive around the city, she’s rattling off names: Patterson Park, the Middle East, Four By Four (which is actually a four block by four block square), Oliver, Ellwood Park. Easier than memorizing neighborhoods, though, is figuring out what areas of the city are in need of more tree canopy. These are the areas with no respite of shade during extreme heat events.

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“I’ve learned that Planning is not an instant gratification profession. It takes time, but eventually you see the results of your efforts." -Ryan Bennett, Planner at the Cape Cod Commission

Cape Codders Take Down Parking Lots, Put Up Paradise

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

May 28-29, 2013

On Cape Cod, the 15-town peninsula jutting off of mainland Massachusetts, ‘pahking lots’—or parking lots as they are known by some—are a big deal.

“In the off-season, it’s a daily routine for people to grab a newspaper, a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, a ‘nip’ if they need it from the liquor store next door, and drive down to the Paine’s Creek parking lot to watch the sunset,” said Jim Gallagher, the Conservation Administrator for the Town of Brewster. Although Gallagher was mostly joking about the ‘nip’ part, sure enough, as we interviewed him about beach erosion at Ellis Landing, a construction worker pulled his truck up to the edge of the parking lot to eat his lunch facing the waves. Continue reading

Climate-Ready Spaulding Hospital Will Keep Boston Strong

Boston, Massachusetts

May 30, 2013

Forward-thinking institutions like Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which opened its doors April 2013, are using lessons learned from hospitals in other cities to prepare for natural disasters.

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The author, Allie Goldstein, at Intervale Community Farms on a rainy day in Vermont. (Photo by the other author, Kirsten Howard.)

For Vermont Farmers, the Road to Resilience Is Winding

Cuttingsville and Burlington Vermont

May 24-27, 2013

It takes us an entire morning and part of an afternoon to find Evening Song Farm. I think they got wiped out by the flood, the owner of a sandwich shop in Cuttingsville, Vermont shrugs. A few miles down the road, we find Evening Song’s faded sign. No answer at the door. A woman at the garden shop tells us to cross the bridge and then the railroad tracks, turn right onto a dirt road, and follow it to the top.

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New porous pavement in Ann Arbor, MI near the University of Michigan

Ann Arbor’s Climate-Smart Stormwater Utility

Ann Arbor, Michigan

May 16-20, 2013

We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees. In fact, the opposite is probably more true, as maintaining urban canopies and parks is a major expense for many local governments. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a newly structured stormwater utility is helping the City pay for its namesake—and prompting residents to think differently about the connection between their land, water, and trees.

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Stories are everywhere. Even at the wastewater treatment plant in Grand Rapids, MI! You just have to look for them.

Grand Rapids: A Little Riverside City with A Big Sustainability Punch

Grand Rapids, Michigan

May 15, 2013

Sitting in a conference room in the midst of Grand Rapids’ state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant, Mike Lunn, the Director of the City’s Environmental Services Department, tells us a story. It’s a universal story—one that applies to countless towns and cities as they cropped up across America:

First, in the late 1800s, they just sent raw sewage in pipes straight down to the river. When the city started smelling unpleasant, some bright individuals combined the sewer pipe system with the rainwater system, allowing the rain to naturally flush out the sewage pipes. But eventually, the river’s foul odor was too harsh on the olfactory glands, so they ran the pipes parallel along the riverbed, sending the sewage downstream. After a while the neighbors complained, so, in the 1930s, they built the first wastewater treatment plant to clean the sewage water before it reached the river.

In some cities, the story more or less ends there. But in Grand Rapids, the Environmental Service Department’s (ESD) attitude is that the plant’s processes need to be continually improving.

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