DC residents and business owners are footing the bill to fix the city’s outdated stormwater infrastructure. Let’s get green jobs in the bargain.

Stormwater runoff is a byproduct of our developing city. We’ve turned much of our land into paved streets, parking lots, sidewalks and rooftops; when it rains, millions of gallons of water rush into our antiquated storm-sewer system, which causes flooding and sends untreated sewage and other pollutants into area rivers.

The city entered into a legal agreement with the EPA in 2005 to end sewer overflows into the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek waterways by 2025. To meet this goal DC Water developed the $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project, which will fix and replace the DC’s outdated storm sewer system.

The project is being financed almost exclusively by DC residents, which means that by 2019 the average resident’s monthly DC water bill will exceed $100. However, few DC residents are getting jobs as a result of this massive spending.

According to DC Water’s most recent employment report, 85 employees on DC Water projects live in North Carolina, more than the 63 employees who live in Wards 7 and 8. It’s time to seriously consider how we get the most bang for our collective buck: clean rivers and green jobs.

Reducing and ultimately eliminating sewage overflows into our rivers is the primary focus of the Clean Rivers Project, but it doesn’t have to be the only return we see on this massive investment of ratepayer money. With political will and imagination, we could use these billions of dollars to create thousands of living wage green jobs and spur green neighborhood revitalization across the city as well.

Late last year, DC Water entered into a preliminary partnership agreement with the EPA to explore green infrastructure as an alternative to the current big-tunnel approach. Solutions could include rain gardens, green roofs, and pervious pavers, which unlike traditional pavement allows water to filter through to the ground below.

This could create thousands of living wage, career-track jobs digging rain gardens, planting trees and maintaining green roofs. Our initial research suggests that investing $40 million a year in green infrastructure could create more than 300 living wage jobs.

DC Water could divert hundreds of millions of dollars into green infrastructure over the next 12 years. These green jobs would go a long way to dealing with stubborn unemployment numbers in wards 5, 7, and 8 and create new tax revenue for the city.

However, these green jobs won’t reach unemployed DC residents unless the leaders at DC Water make it a priority. We need an organized base of ratepayers, job-seekers, businesses and environmentalists holding city leaders accountable for training and preparing unemployed DC workers for these green jobs and holding contractors and DC Water and its contractors accountable for hiring them.

Focusing on green job creation in the Clean Rivers Project will also broaden public support for green infrastructure — public support that can make sure green infrastructure projects get done.  DC Water will inevitably face hurdles navigating DC’s maze of local, federal and private land to install hundreds of acres of green infrastructure. They will need long-term city-wide resident buy-in to hold local and federal government and agencies accountable for working together to fund, build, and maintain these projects.

With political will, green infrastructure can be a viable solution to our stormwater problems. Our organization, the Washington Interfaith Network, a local citizen power organization made up of faith, labor and community based organizations, is building a citywide coalition supporting green infrastructure in the Clean Rivers Project. We would like it to include a clear comprehensive plan for green job creation and neighborhood revitalization along with river restoration.

On Earth Day 2013, we will gather 800 neighborhood leaders at Temple Sinai, next to Rock Creek Park, with officials from DC Water and City Council to make public commitments for creating such a plan in the next six months. With $2.6 billion in debt to pay back, we can’t afford to do otherwise.