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Green infrastructure job trainings aim to support growing field

A photo of a truck and several cars stuck in several feet of flood water on Interstate 94 in southeast Michigan.
Traffic caught in flooding on I-94 near Detroit in 2021. Detroit has experienced flooding after heavy rainfall thanks in part to its stormwater system.

As more green infrastructure projects are installed across the state, more workers are needed to maintain them. Friends of the Rouge, a Detroit-area non-profit that manages the River Rouge watershed, is offering a short course about maintaining green infrastructure like rain gardens. The course is an opportunity for workers to expand their job skills and contribute to green projects in the metropolitan area.

Cyndi Ross, restoration manager at Friends of the Rouge, said more green projects in the city means more trained workers are needed.

“It's in demand, and the demand is growing,” she said. The job market isn’t new, but more municipalities are investing in green infrastructure. That creates jobs for disadvantaged communities, according to a 2013 report by American Rivers and Green For All.

Similar programs are available in the Bronx, New Orleans and Maryland, among other places.

Green infrastructure is “managing stormwater with plants,” Ross said. It’s similar to landscaping, but uses native plants rather than decorative non-native species.

Rain gardens and other green installations are intentionally designed to catch and filter storm water.

“The gardens are designed in a way to receive rainwater runoff and store that water, slow it down, soak it up, evaporate it into the atmosphere,” Ross said. “And so there's different challenges with that maintenance.” That requires special training beyond traditional landscaping experience, Ross said.

Students will learn how to identify erosion, distinguish between native plants and weeds and control invasive species. Some program graduates go on to maintain green installations in the Rouge watershed.

Those jobs are on contract only, but Friends of the Rouge is working with their municipal partners to secure more opportunities, Ross said.

Additional benefits of green infrastructure include long-term cost savings and reduced risk of flooding, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s especially important in the Detroit area, Ross said.

Detroit uses a combined sewer system, an older design that drains sewage and storm water in one system. Combined systems aren’t equipped to handle the heavy precipitation events that have become more common due to climate change.

The city has seen this firsthand in the form of basement backups and street flooding. Green infrastructure, when properly maintained, reduces how much storm water reaches drains and sewer systems during heavy rainfall.

The benefits aren’t just environmental. The program also aims to engage Detroit residents and provide pathways to higher wages, Ross said.

Stipends are available to cover costs of the class. The first round of the program begins July 9, but a second round will begin in August.

“We want to help improve economic standards for people who maybe don't have that college degree, don't have the job that they're really in love with and maybe want to change careers or create a higher pay, a more livable wage,” she said.

“We're really just hoping to improve community with community.”

Elinor Epperson is an environment intern through the Great Lakes News Collaborative. She is wrapping up her master's degree in journalism at Michigan State University.
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