The room was quiet and expectant as Carol Franklin, a Philadelphia landscape architect specializing in what she calls ecological planners and designers, drew red and green lines on a aerial photo map of the Golden Gateway section of Downtown Chattanooga.
"It really is all about what you do with water," she had said a few moments before. "Sustainability is predicated on doing no harm. It's way too late for that. We have to come to know the new terms of regenerative landscapes and high performance landscapes. Our landscapes have got to make up for all the little undoings that human beings have been involved in since the cavemen."
Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press - John Crider, left, and Leonel Ramirez of Fine Lines install flats of sedum plants on the roof of the Creative Discovery Museum on Tuesday. The installation will create the largest green roof on a building in Chattanooga.
In the Gateway setting, Ms. Franklin and two of her associates peppered the group around a BlueCross BlueShied table with questions.
Planner and Chattanooga Design Center director Karen Hundt, BlueCross architect Jeff Sundean, First Baptist Church pastor Bill Allen, Lyndhurst Director Bruz Clark and Chattanooga Sustainability director Dave Crockett offered answers and insights, along with questions of their own.
The goal of the meeting, and at least two others last week in Brainerd and along the MLK/UTC part of downtown, was to rethink how Chattanooga can make stormwater runoff from an annual 54 inches of rain work for residents, not against them.
"You get paid to lead," Mr. Crockett said. "You pay to follow."
Locally, with concerns over recent sewage-tainted overflows to the Tennessee River and tougher state and city regulations poised to cost some businesses $5,000 to $10,000 a year, city and civic leaders are looking for help.
But Dr. Richard Brown, vice chancellor of finance and operations at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said there's more at stake locally than bills.
"It's important to move the conversation beyond fees," Dr. Brown said. "There is great opportunity here."
Rethinking roofs and pavement
After proposing last year to triple stormwater fees to pay for fixing or reinventing drainage systems, Mayor Ron Littlefield pledged in his annual "State of the City" address this year to make the Scenic City a greener, more sustainable community by recharging rather than discharging rain runoff.
"We will have to change the way we design and build our city," he said. "Chattanooga will pursue a course of creating 'green infrastructure' as an alternative to our past practices of gray infrastructure below ground and impervious surfaces above ground."
Mr. Crockett, appointed by Mayor Littlefield late last year to head the city's new Office of Sustainability, has been peddling the "opportunity" angle of coping with environmental headaches for years.
A former member of the Chattanooga City Council, he recalls that Chattanooga's sewer fees were supposed to be rising from $3 to $9.60 gradually over the past decade. But city officials through the years put off the unpopular task of raising fees that have little more than a one-lunch-a-month impact on residential costs, but considerable impact on businesses -- especially big ones with big parking areas.
Now catching up calls for a shift in thinking, he said. That shift includes green roofs to absorb rainwater and slow runoff, pervious pavement to allow precipitation to soak into rain gardens and landscape irrigation systems, and gutter sculptures to catch gushes.
The result, Mr. Crockett said, will save money, revitalize the community and raise property values.
"All you have to do is look at the popularity of shows like 'Curb Appeal' and 'Desperate Landscapes,' to know this can be a win-win," he said.
In Philadelphia, which faced a Department of Justice lawsuit to bring its stormwater and wastewater system under control, Ms. Franklin's firm, Andropogon, helped the city save more than $5 million in stormwater runoff costs, according to city officials.
Saving money is just the beginning of opportunity, local leaders say.
"We're all short on dollars," said Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport President and CEO Mike Landguth.
Wastewater at a glance
* WHERE RUNOFF GOES: Only 70 miles of Chattanooga's 1,250 miles of sewer line are combined with stormwater runoff lines -- mostly in downtown Chattanooga -- even Hixson and Hamilton County's stormwater runoff pipes lead to the Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant.
* WHAT IT COSTS: The treatment plant bills by the 1,000 gallons of in-flow. The more wastewater there is in treatment, the more chemicals necessary to clean the water before it is released to the Tennessee River -- the drinking water source for more than 4 million people.
* NEW RULE: Businesses will be required to keep on-site the first inch of runoff from about 80 percent of the region's rainfall events. The draft rule, pushed by EPA and written by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, will soon be in place statewide.
Source: Chattanooga Public Works, TVA, EPA
The airport is looking at buying property that includes former car lots -- acres of pavement -- and greening it to help the community and solve some of its own runoff problems, he said. When he ran the concept by Ms. Franklin, she asked him if he'd considered the maintenance costs of his
grassy park plan.
"Some of the ideas they're looking at may not be traditional," he said, noting that she suggested a stand of trees instead of grass. It would save on what she called the "life-cycle cost," he said.
"There's ways you can provide a more cost-effective solution from the engineering standpoint and it's going to be better for the environment," Mr. Landguth said. "What a great solution."
UTC's Dr. Brown sees future money making opportunities, too.
He foresees UTC's SimCenter playing a role in helping businesses simulate their stormwater runoff flow.
He also foresees courses to train landscaping engineers in "high-performance landscaping" that does more than add parks and curb appeal. It works, too.
"We're very excited about it," Dr. Brown said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...