Trump plans for updated bridges but ignores the troubled waters below
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The Trump administration recently announced a $1 trillion spending package to overhaul bridges, roads and other infrastructure across the country. While it’s true that we must confront failing infrastructure, the president’s emphasis on grey, but not green, infrastructure is short-sighted.

Green infrastructure is the use of the natural environment to maintain ecosystem services that keep us safe, healthy and prosperous as individuals and a nation. 

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In the case of water management, green infrastructure is comprised of natural, restored and created aquatic ecosystems — streams, rivers, wetlands, floodplains — that recharge aquifers while filtering pollutants and sediment. These ecosystems prevent flooding, reduce run-off and lower costs of water treatment. Green infrastructure not only carries enormous economic benefits from those services, but also supports water-related tourism and recreation, which contribute upwards of $44 billion annually to the U.S. economy. We can’t afford to lose these liquid assets. 

 

Green infrastructure matters. Think back to Hurricane Katrina, our nation’s most costly and deadly storm. Without adequate protection from coastal wetlands, the levees failed to contain the surging waters from the storm — nearly 80 percent of New Orleans flooded. Over a million people were displaced along the Gulf Coast and damages were estimated at $135 billion. 

In a recent letter  the White House Council on Environmental Quality acknowledged the “national significance of Louisiana’s coastal area for energy production, fisheries, recreation, and other resources.” Nevertheless, President Trump still proposed to repeal the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, cutting $140 million per year for essential projects to restore the coast and provide hurricane protection.

Green infrastructure saves money, too. After a half million residents of Toledo, Ohio lost access to city water due to toxic algal blooms in 2014, the city was forced to pay $500 million to upgrade water treatment facilities. Likewise, the city of Des Moines, Iowa paid $1.5 million to filter nitrates out of its drinking water supply and will need an additional $80 million for other upgrades. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources must supply bottled water to households whose private wells are contaminated by livestock manure. These cases are not isolated.

We can prevent water contamination more economically and effectively by protecting and restoring natural habitats. New York City provided safe drinking water to residents and saved nearly $10 billion by preserving forests in the Catskills instead of building a water filtration plant to do the same job.

Yet today many cost-effective programs that improve water quality through habitat restoration and conservation are proposed to be eliminated, such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Think water quality is not a problem in the United States? Think again. A recent study showed that one-quarter of our nation’s tap water — used by nearly 77 million Americans — is either unsafe to drink or not properly monitored. How then could House Republicans justify passing H.R. 953 to eliminate the need for a permit before spraying pesticides into water?

The Trump administration is also working to rescind the Clean Water Rule, and exclude from protection small wetlands, streams and floodplains that collectively recharge our aquifers, lessen risk of flooding, trap sediments, reduce run-off and sequester pollutants.

When we fail to protect our green infrastructure, we pay in many ways — risking our health, safety, recreation opportunities and financial security. A smarter strategy can be found by looking at efforts like New York City’s Green Infrastructure Plan.  In the plan, the business-minded former Mayor Bloomberg explained how green infrastructure can “improve water and air quality, help to cool the city, reduce energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions, increase property values, and beautify our communities. And we can achieve all of these benefits for billions of dollars less than the cost of the traditional tanks and tunnels.”  

Investing in infrastructure is a good thing, but let’s be sure to invest in green and grey infrastructure alike. To do otherwise is simply building bridges over troubled waters.

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and Public Voices fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.