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Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management

Hawai’i’s Sea Grant’s Center for Smart Building and Community Design (SBCD) began this site with the goal of educating a wide range of community members on the benefits and uses of green infrastructure (GI). Community planners across the nation have begun to incorporate GI practices into urban centers. As well, much research around the country is going into how GI can maintain and renew watersheds that host urban centers. This site is a way station for planners, policy makers, and interested community members to learn about alternative stormwater management practices and be directed to the right resource to learn more.

What is Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management

A before and after image of green infrastructure being utilized at Manoa elementary

Before (left) and after (right) the installlation of a rain garden at Manoa Elementary.

Green infrastructure (GI), as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is a system of practices that uses or mimics natural processes to infiltrate, evapotranspirate, or reuse stormwater or runoff on the site where it is generated. GI can be varying in scale and design. These practices can either be integrated into the design of new construction or retrofitted to meet post construction stormwater needs. GI can also be the preservation or construction of natural open spaces like parks, wetlands, or forests.

LARGE SCALE: Parks, natural areas, greenways, agriculture, and forest lands.

SMALL SCALE: Green roofs, trees, rain gardens, rain barrels, permeable pavement, creek daylighting, vegetation swales, pocket wetlands, infiltration planters, and vegetation median strips.

Grey infrastructure is what we commonly associate with our built landscapes. Buildings, roadways, and sewer pipes are all examples of grey infrastructures. Green is not meant to completely replace grey. It is a practice that integrates and compliments the hard structures with natural features, as seen in the before and after picture above: a storm drain is retrofitted with a rain garden. Additional grading was added to the site to direct water draining off the roof and terrain into the rain garden. The concrete channel became an overflow measure, allowing a large volume of stormwater to be infiltrated and used by plants before entering the stormwater sewer.

Learn More about green infrastructure practices.

A small stream trickles through a park in Manoa

Why Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management?

Public health and community resilience are the overarching concerns that cut across public and private interests. Central to these concerns is how land use impacts water resources. Alteration of land from development can lead to dramatic changes in the way water is stored and transported. Impervious constructed surfaces (asphalt, concrete, rooftops) and compacted earth associated with development create a barrier to the percolation of rainfall into the soil, increasing surface runoff and decreasing groundwater infiltration. Development and intensive land use also causes generation of more pollutants. Increased runoff serves to transports such pollutants directly into waterways, creating nonpoint source pollution. Polluted runoff is now widely recognized by environmental scientists and regulators as the single largest threat to water quality in the United States.

Green Infrastructure benefits to the Environment, Economy, and Community.


  • GI absorbs stormwater on site, reducing impacts associated with runoff such as flooding and erosion.
  • Plant, soil, and aggregate components of GI can filter and treat polluted runoff before it reaches waterways.
  • Studies show that vegetated areas can moderate the local climate and lessen the urban heat island effect, contributing to energy conservation.
  • GI can preserve and restore natural ecosystems and provide habitat for native plants and animals.
  • Increasing the amount of plant cover increases carbon sequestation.


  • GI creates jobs and business oppurtunities in fields such as landscaping, recreation, and tourism.
  • Studies have shown that GI can stimulate sales in local business districts (Wolf 1998 and 1999).
  • GI increases property values (Neelay 1988; Economy Leage of Greater Philedelphia 2009).
  • GI can attract visitors, residents, and businesses to a community.
  • GI can reduce health care and grey infrastructure costs (Heisler 1986; Simpson and McPherson 1996; Economy Leage of Greater Philedelphia 2010).


  • GI promotes healthy lifestyles by providing outdoor recreation opportunities and enabling people to walk or bike.
  • It can improve environmental conditions and their effects on public health.
  • It can provide places for people to gather, socialize, and build community spirit.
  • It can improve the aesthetic quality of urban and suburban development.
  • It can connect people to nature.
  • Studies have shown that better health outcomes improved educational and work performance (Ulrich 1984; Kaplan 1995; Berman et al. 2008; Kuo and Sullivan 1996, 2001a, 2001b).

Source: Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach


Municipal Officials

Pavement is a necessary feature of urbanized communities. However, many options are available to municipal officials who are concerned with reducing negative water quality impacts associated with existing or future development. Strategies can be organized into a three-tiered approach which can be summarized as: plan, minimize, and mitigate.

  • Plan development based on your community’s natural resources
  • Minimize impacts through site design
  • Mitigate unavoidable impacts by using Green Infrastructure Best Management Practices



One of the main things that can be done on a residential level is to increase the amount of permeable surface on your property. Increasing your homeʻs ability to slow down, spread out, and soak in rainwater can be done by disconnecting impervious surfaces on your property. Disconnecting the impervious surfaces by using good landscaping practices like green infrastructure interrupts the pathways that runoff utilizes to drain off-site. Downspouts can also be disconnected at their base so that rainwater is directed into a rain garden, rain barrel, or yard as seen in the image on the right. Learn more about downspout disconnection from Clean Water Honolulu. To learn more about what can be done on a residential level see the Watershed Handbook for the Residents of Malama Maunalua (pdf), and the Hawaiʻi Residential Rain Garden Manual (pdf).


There are a number of approaches to mitigating the effects of development in our neighborhoods, streams, and beaches. One such approach is integrating GI into site design planning of new developments as well as retrofits. GI is a multifunctional and cost-effective approach to stormwater infrastructure. GI has the potential to provide a wide suite of benefits to the environment, economy, and community.

Four thumbnail images of drain pipes for stormwater management

Stormwater Management in Policy

There are three main federal laws that regulate nonpoint source pollution. The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972, the Clean Water Action Plan, and the Coastal Zone Management Act. Both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Water Action Plan direct the state of Hawaiʻi to draft and implement NPS water pollution plans.

The Clean Water Act

The CWA Chapter 4 (§)  402, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits (NPDES) are issued to each county, and authorizes the discharge of stormwater runoff. State of Hawaiʻi Department of Health administers the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits which control water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants. One way that the NPDES permits control NPS pollution is through the regulation of stormwater drainage systems. In 2015 the NPDES for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) permits for the City and County of Honolulu were updated and became affective on February 15th. The update MS4 permits control discharge from construction sites of at least 1 acre and require post construction permanent BMP’s. The CWA Chapter 3, 2014 §303(d) and §305(b) requires that states identify recieving waters that have failed to meet water quality standards for their designated uses. Water that fails to meet water quality standards are designated “impaired” and Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) are created to establish a limit on pollutant discharges into the waters. The TMDL’s are limits to point and nonpoint pollution. An Intergrate Report and Total Maximum Daily loads are submitted to the EPA every two years.


Learn More about NPDES Permits.

Learn More about impaired waters and TMDL.

Rouse, David C. “Ch. 2, Lanscape Planning, Design, and Green Infrastructure.” Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. Vol. 571. N.p.: n.p., 2013. N. pag. Print.