The ROIs of Environmental Restoration, Part 1: Green Jobs
This is the first of a series of articles about various returns on investments in restoring the Anacostia River watershed by Erin Garnaas-Holmes, Ambassador to the Anacostia Watershed Urban Waters Partnership.
What do we get from all of the money we are spending on restoring the river?
Billions of dollars have been invested in restoring the Anacostia River, and millions more will be spent on returning the river to a swimmable, fishable waterbody in coming years. As the bills for restoration go up, a taxpayer may begin to ask, “What do I get from all this money being spent?” There are a lot of good answers to that question, and I hope to explore these “returns on investment” (ROIs) of environmental restoration in a series of articles, starting with this one.
An immediate answer is that someday we won’t have to worry about getting cancer from eating fish from the river, and someday we will be able to safely splash, play, wade and swim in the river. We will also get to benefit from what is becoming a premiere network of open space along the river, an interconnected system of parks and trails that is bigger than New York’s Central Park.
But for some residents who live near the river, safe water and connected trails aren’t as important as more immediate needs, like making a living wage and affording healthy food or decent housing. Recognizing the overlap between community needs and environmental restoration goals, government agencies and nonprofit advocates that have historically focused on environmental goals have begun engaging in more and more discussions about social issues like workforce development and equitable neighborhood development.
At a recent roundtable event organized by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the District Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and hosted by the National League of Cities, dozens of leaders explored a primary question emerging from these discussions: how can spending on environmental restoration create jobs for watershed residents?
How can spending on environmental restoration create jobs for watershed residents?
Tommy Wells, Director of DOEE, opened the DC Workforce Development and Green Jobs Roundtable with the argument that our region shouldn’t focus on creating a green workforce “just for the sake of creating jobs,” he said. “We have to retrofit our city, and we have to do it quickly.” Cities like the District need to adapt to reduce greenhouse gasses, manage water and prepare for impacts of climate change, he said, and a crucial part of making that happen is to train up a local workforce with skills in green technology.
Jeff Seltzer, the Deputy Director of DOEE’s Natural Resources Administration, compared a map of the agency’s targeted river restoration areas against a map of low employment in the District. The areas most in need of water quality improvements overlap consistently with areas in need of jobs. Seltzer argued that as new best management practices (BMPs) like rain gardens get installed to improve waterways, local residents could be hired to install and maintain them.
The panelists that followed highlighted many successful programs that provide training for jobs in the solar and stormwater management industries. They also highlighted the challenges of working with people who don’t have previous employment experience. Many job trainees need as much coaching on “soft” skills like punctuality as technical skills in a given field.
Programs like the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program, Solar Works DC, DC Infrastructure Academy, Ward 8 Woods and the Living Classrooms Foundation provide job training in a specific “green” field. They also each provide some sort of mentor, coach or case worker that help participants prepare for job interviews, create resumes, learn the “soft” skills and plan out a career path. Julian Liser, a graduate of the DC Infrastructure Academy and Solar Works DC, described how the programs will take anybody regardless of their existing skill level, but the participant needs to be ready to “meet halfway.”
It’s hard work on both fronts—the new employee is often outdoors in the heat, in the dirt or on a roof, doing hard labor, while the employer is providing more coaching and emotional support for the new employee than usual—but in the end, these programs demonstrate a “win-win” solution.
Ted Scott, co-owner of SMC, a company that holds contracts to maintain BMPs throughout the region, cautioned that currently, there are not that many jobs specifically in rain garden maintenance. If the success of these job training programs is to continue, the region will need to invest in more restoration projects while also diversifying the skills of workers to respond to future needs. But, he said, and everyone in the room echoed, it is imperative and important to have both “green” organizations and “workforce” organizations in the same room going forward.