In 2010, the area now known as SoBro (South of Broadway) suffered major flooding that flowed into buildings and devastated the Louisville Free Public Library’s main branch, a result of wastewater backup. That same year, the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District started its green infrastructure program to incentivize companies to make their properties more wastewater friendly, which helps the environment, eases stress on the sewer system and helps ease flooding downtown.
MSD has allocated about $12 million in incentives to date, representing a total of $25 million spent on green infrastructure projects by public and private money. It recently funded its 100th project, the new headquarters of Solid Light, an exhibit design and building firm at 800 S. Fifth St.
The building had been home to electrical supply company CED/E&H Electrical. It was an old warehouse with concrete around it, said Solid Light President and CEO Cynthia Torp.
Over the past year and a half, Solid Light has changed the property’s landscape from impermeable to nearly 100 percent permeable, Torp said, which allows the rainwater to be absorbed into the ground instead of sitting on top of concrete.
The total investment in the project was $521,000, of which MSD and the city of Louisville gave $121,000.
“I learned about the green incentives through the city, but also I met — almost immediately after I bought the building — with MSD to talk with them about trying to do something to green this space up because it was two acres of impermeable property,” Torp said.
The rainwater from the roof of the building was all going straight into the sewers.
“So I worked with MSD just to understand what they had to offer and what other places were doing,” she said.
Why it matters
The city’s sewers were built before 1850 when there was no water treatment. All the sewers downtown were designed to take in sewage and rainwater together.
In 1958, the Morris Forman Water Quality Treatment Center was built to clean the water and sewage. Previously, it was dumped it into nearby rivers and streams.
Solid Light has built rainwater systems to help the water go into the ground, down to the sand layer of the Earth, so that it doesn’t go to the treatment plant.
“All that stormwater doesn’t need to be treated in the same way that the sanitary sewer does,” said Jordan Basham, an engineer at MSD. “One option we have is to infiltrate that into the ground instead of sending it to a treatment plant. This saves us treatment costs at our plant and reduces the size of anything we may need to build to treat it.”
The green infrastructure project at Solid Light included digging down into the ground and installing a huge permeable basin, so now all the rainwater goes into that basin instead of the sewer. The basin allows the water to seep into the ground over time, so that it doesn’t overflow into the sewer.
The system is installed, but Solid Light is still planning to install landscaping in some parts of the property, including a “green wall” in front of the building. Now, the company is just waiting for its landscapers to be available to do the work, Torp said. A rainy spring has put the project behind.
The amount of water that MSD’s program has prevented from entering the sewer system is about 300 million gallons annually, with Solid Light’s project expected to be about 1.75 million. The total treatment cost savings over 20 years is expected to be $4.5 million, Basham said.
Along with rainwater diversion, rain gardens and other plantings have helped prevent rainwater overflow into sewers. The green infrastructure solutions MSD builds and incentivizes allow impervious surfaces to behave more naturally; rain gardens, bioswales (landscape elements designed to remove debris from surface water) and infiltration trenches capture the increased runoff generated by impervious surfaces, filter out most of the pollutants and infiltrate the stormwater runoff back into the ground.
In addition to stormwater-related improvements, Solid Light also uses LED lighting throughout the building.
Torp said the only thing keeping Solid Light from getting LEED (Leadership and Energy in Environmental Design) from the U.S. Green Building Council, and STAR (Strategic Toxic Air Reduction) from the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control Board is that there isn’t a white roof over the entire building.
A white roof would deflect sunlight and prevent the need for more air conditioning. Torp said the white roof is definitely in Solid Light’s plans, but she’s waiting for the funds to free up.
“I’ve lived in the Louisville area most of my life, and my business has almost always been in downtown,” she said. “So it was really important to me to find a location in Louisville where we could also practice our love for the city and improve it.”
While flood prevention isn’t the main goal of these projects, it can help, Basham said.
“The more water you’re putting into the ground and less water you’re putting into the sewer system, that will have an impact. It’s not specifically for flood reduction, but it’s something we may look at doing, putting in green areas” in flood-prone areas downtown, he added.
In August 2009, a flash flood — about 6 inches within a day — hit Louisville and caused about $21 million in damages to the University of Louisville.
“We’re not going to be able to build facilities that can handle that kind of rain event,” said Wesley Sydnor, director of intergovernmental relations for MSD. “But it prompted places like the University of Louisville and prompted the main branch of the library and others downtown to start looking for ways to reduce the risk, not for an event like that, but for some of the smaller events. … So they wanted to reinvest in facilities and ways to take some of that water and take advantage of the sandy soils that parts of the campus are on and parts of downtown are on. And absorb as much as they could.”
The city’s contribution
Along with MSD’s green infrastructure incentive program, the Louisville Metro Office of Sustainability also gives money to help with projects, said Maria Koetter, director of sustainability for Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government.
The program is funded as a line item in the city’s budget and helps fund smaller projects that really need extra funding, Koetter said. The department focuses on projects receiving less than $50,000 in funding from MSD.
The city allows MSD’s engineers to decide which projects to fund, then the city adds up to $25,000 to the projects. So far, it’s funded 10 projects, with seven or eight coming from MSD referrals, Koetter said. There is still $8,000 left to be distributed for the fiscal year, so the department is hoping someone will apply for those funds.
“We were just really thrilled that Solid Light was able to come on board with this project,” Koetter said. “Their whole remodel and renovation of their build really speaks to their commitment to general environmental sustainability. I think this is a great showcase of what other organizations can do when they renovate and remodel, and be eco-friendly in what they are doing on their property.”