“Green” stormwater projects in pipeline for four Catholic schools


The sprawling asphalt playgrounds and parking lots of four San Francisco parish school campuses will be retrofitted soon to reduce the volume of stormwater runoff that occurs in “hardscaped” urban areas with little natural drainage.

St. Thomas More School, St. Thomas the Apostle School, St. Anne of the Sunset School and St. Monica School will receive close to $4 million in grant money from the San Francisco Public Utility Commission for design and implementation of projects in a Green Infrastructure Grant Program launched in February 2019. Approval of two more San Francisco school site grant applications is pending.

The city aims to reduce the burden of urban stormwaters on an inadequate sewer system and prevent the ecological and human toll of a sewage system breakdown.

According to John Christian, executive director of the archdiocese’s Real Property Support Corporation, the four schools are projected to collectively manage 2.7 million gallons of rainwater every year when their projects are completed in 2022-23. The Real Property Support Corporation manages and develops church and school properties throughout the archdiocese.

“This process has been enlightening to me,” said Father Dan Nascimento, pastor at St. Anne of the Sunset. His parish schoolyard and parking lot are among the largest in the city. He is happy to have received the grant to “get a greener, eco-friendlier schoolyard.”

Stormwater management is a critical municipal responsibility that has a direct impact on public health and safety, water quality, urban design and wildlife habitat, said Christian, who is helping shepherd pastors and principals of qualified school sites through the grant application and project implementation process.

Though California is in an historic drought, urban flooding is on the rise in the Bay Area, according to the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to solutions to global water challenges. The state’s naturally variable precipitation patterns, an increase in precipitation extremes, population growth and insufficient sewer infrastructure are factors.

More than a decade ago, the SFPUC announced a long-range stormwater management program. The incentivized grant program was added later to help offset the cost of approved green stormwater infrastructure projects on privately held properties that had large paved areas.

“Almost by definition, properties with a lot of asphalt are going to be Catholic church and school campuses,” said Christian, who was approached in 2019 by Chicago-based design and engineering firm Greenprint Partners. Greenprint wanted to help qualified Catholic school properties in San Francisco apply for the limited number of grants available.

Almost by definition, properties with a lot of asphalt are going to be Catholic church and school campuses.


The school grants are the result of a collaborative partnership between Christian, school principals and pastors, the city of San Francisco and Greenprint. After consultations, Greenprint – overseen by Christian – creates the design plans for each school grant application and manages the construction project after the grant is received.

Christian said there is a major fiscal incentive baked into the grant program.

The SFPUC has announced plans to substantially increase water and sewer rates for all San Francisco property owners, he said. The grant covers the cost of retrofitting the school property with green stormwater infrastructure and offers another plum to property owners: a substantially reduced water rate.

“If we don’t do this program, we are really going to get hit,” Christian said. “So long as we keep that parish or school going for 20 years, any obligation to repay the grant disappears; it costs us nothing.”

What is green infrastructure?

Green stormwater infrastructure is the use of natural systems to manage water where it falls. It utilizes natural processes of soils, stones and plants to slow, store and clean stormwater to keep it from overwhelming the sewer system.

In its 2016 Stormwater Requirements and Design Guidelines, the SFPUC reframes stormwater as a “resource rather than a waste product.”

Green infrastructure projects vary from site to site, but typically include modifying or replacing existing grounds features in a way that collects or redirects stormwater for other site purposes – primarily irrigation – rather than having it go down the drain.

Expanses of blacktop or concrete are replaced with porous pavement that allows water to percolate more slowly into the soil rather that rush into the sewer. It might include stormwater “swales,” or planted ditches that slow and redirect stormwater from paved surfaces and help increasing filtration and absorption.

Artist’s rendering of plan for St. Thomas More School

Green infrastructure projects also include cisterns, runofffed planters, woody vegetation and shade canopy, and educational rain and pollinator gardens.

“What if we could make our city act like a sponge that naturally soaks up rainwater instead of having it flow into the sewer?,” said Greenprint’s Rose Jordan, vice president of marketing and program operations.

The San Francisco context

As cities grow, so can stormwater management problems. Like many large urban centers, San Francisco’s natural water cycle has been disrupted with the growth of development and paved surfaces, according to the SFPUC. Weather patterns have also become highly variable, with both intense periods of drought and heavy rains falling in a short period of time.

Impervious surfaces such as buildings, streets and parking lots cover most of the city and county of San Francisco, preventing rainfall from filtering  into the ground. Instead of percolating into soils, runoff now travels over mostly hard surfaces, backing up sewers, flooding streets and, sometimes, mobilizing raw sewage and pollutants into the sewer system and into the San Francisco Bay and other bodies of water.

The decrease in infiltration resulting from paved surfaces also contributes to groundwater depletion. Green infrastructure can help mitigate these adverse effects.

A natural classroom

Christian said his invitation to qualified schools to submit a grant application has been “well received” by many pastors and principals. Others may be more cautious about the perceived loss of any parking spots, basketball courts or parish hospitality areas.

St. Thomas More School has been the “lead dog” in the four schools approved for the grant, he said, thanks to the enthusiasm of longtime principal Marie Fitzpatrick. She called the project “a huge benefit” to the school.

“Investing in the future starts with investing in the next generation, and we continue to do so each day at St. Thomas More School,” she said about the project that should get underway at the end of the 2021-22 academic year.

Renderings by Greenprint Partners approved by the school, city and archdiocese show a bird’s eye view of the current campus and its eventual transformation. The playground/parking lot space and six basketball courts remain but will sit atop a permeable paving material. Seventeen rainwater-fed trees and shrubs will border the grounds and walkways. Rain gardens will collect and use some of the water, and underground cisterns will store the surplus.

Fitzpatrick intends to harness the green infrastructure stormwater project into learning at St. Thomas More School.

The first of Greenprint’s outreach projects for St. Thomas More School students and staff happened at the start of the school year when Jordan traveled to San Francisco for an all-school presentation. She offered an educational overview of water management including a fact-filled mini-history of Western sewer systems.

“Managing water is one of humanity’s tough challenges,” Jordan wrote in one of her slides that included photos of ancient water systems, including a Roman aqueduct.

Jordan also presented the benefits of the school project in fun, age-relatable terms.

“Over 26,000 bathtubs worth of stormwater will be managed here each year,” she said. More than 88 percent of it will be managed by green spaces, “letting nature do the work.”

Green: the color of the church’s future

Christian called the green infrastructure projects “an investment in our properties.”

“You will no longer design a parish or school campus the way we did back when I was a kid,” he said. “This will be the norm.”

The stormwater projects are one aspect of a multifaceted, green-technology initiative across the archdiocese, said Christian. The projects are in the spirit of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.”

This year the archdiocese joined Pope Francis’ just-launched Vatican Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which is a seven-year plan to engage individuals, families and communities “to build a better future through Laudato Si’ goals.”

The stormwater management projects are just some of the projects of the archdiocese’s Real Property Support Corporation. Other top priorities are facility LED lighting conversions and solar installations. Electric vehicle charging stations are now located at the pastoral center, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Archbishop Riordan High School and Holy Cross Cemetery.

Christina Gray is lead writer, Catholic San Francisco, [email protected]