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Nature’s solutions for infrastructure problems

Amid the high dudgeon of the U.S. presidential election season, it is hard to keep my rosy-colored glasses affixed. But, there it is, in front of me—a ray of hope. And it shines on infrastructure.

Yes, infrastructure—perhaps the least emotionally inspiring public issue imaginable. Maybe that is precisely why it has gotten a “thumbs up” across the political spectrum as a “must” for congressional action without triggering passionate rhetoric and ideological chasms.

{mosads}This is good news for conservation. Beyond the obvious benefits of roads without potholes and water pipes without leaks, investing in infrastructure can benefit both people and nature.

Both Democrats and Republicans talk about the need for infrastructure investment. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 16th globally in overall infrastructure quality. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure failing grades—a D minus for levees, a D for water and wastewater systems, a D for dams. Infrastructure for parks and recreation fares barely any better—with a C-minus at a time when burgeoning amounts of research show strong linkages between nature and health. And the estimated price tag to fix all this comes to over $3.3 trillion by 2020. In short, we face an infrastructure crisis.

But, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, in crisis lies opportunity.

In the case of infrastructure, seizing this opportunity means thinking beyond the price tag. It means thinking about the future—not just replicating the past. It means, even, rethinking just what kind of infrastructure to invest in. It means, in part, thinking about nature’s solutions.

So what is the Holy Grail of improvement? We seek better, smarter cost-effective solutions that benefit the economy, environment, and communities. And that means looking at how nature can help.

Natural systems can provide basic services like water storage, storm buffering, or water filtration to communities, businesses, and residences. The benefits are not hypothetical.

In two Nature Conservancy projects to restore oyster reefs along the Alabama coastline, we found these reefs could provide over a 50 percent reduction in wave height—meaning lower risks to coastal communities from extreme storms.

Or consider our cities. City infrastructure to manage stormwater is aging and inadequate. The systems are so bad that 772 cities face legal action by the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the problems. But fixing the problems could cost $100 billion or more. And here’s where nature can help. A paved city block results in five times more stormwater runoff than a forest.  We cannot turn cities into forests—but we can put trees and natural landscaping back into cities to help manage stormwater—at lower costs and bringing other benefits like habitat for birds or open spaces for outdoor recreation.

Nature’s solutions cannot always replace built infrastructure but can be an important—and cost-effective—complement to traditional engineered solutions. The American Society of Civil Engineers agrees, and joined us in a letter to Congress encouraging nature-based solutions in the Water Resources Development Act.

And more cities see these complementary opportunities.  They are setting forth a different infrastructure vision—one that includes trees, open spaces, and permeable landscapes. Philadelphia proposes to convert 34 percent of the city to permeable surfaces—green rooftops and permeable pavement. Washington, D.C. has also turned to nature for help in managing its stormwater.

Elsewhere, other performance challenges also are prompting a rethinking of infrastructure.  In New Orleans, the failure of its flood control infrastructure during Hurricane Katrina made world headlines. The New Orleans tragedy was not an isolated one. Levee failure in California during heavy rainfall in 2006 triggered emergency state spending to shore up levees. In the Midwest, devastating floods continue to imperil communities. These infrastructure failures are prompting a look at how nature can help—through oyster reef restoration along coasts or floodplain restoration along rivers.

Federal action can help, too. The Federal Flood Risk Standard, for example, is about making our infrastructure investments more resilient in face of climate and extreme weather.

Nature-based solutions are gaining traction. As we saw in the most recent transportation bill, there is a bipartisan recognition that there are smart, cost-effective ways to meet infrastructure challenges. For example, ensuring long-term plans account for extreme weather events, increasing precipitation, and coastal climate impacts can help avoid costly repairs and emergencies. It makes us safer and saves us money.

Congress has another opportunity to help now. It can finalize the Water Resources Development Act before the end of this session, and make sure it keeps several provisions to ensure that water infrastructure projects consider nature-based approaches. This will help expand the use of wetlands, natural floodplains, coastal dunes, and ocean reefs to help communities reduce flood and storm damage, improve water quality, and protect vital wildlife habitats.

The Nature Conservancy’s polling shows strong, bipartisan public support for such solutions. But fulfilling the potential of nature’s solutions requires that the Congress, prompted by the bipartisan interest in addressing America’s alarming infrastructure problems, think beyond dollars and cents to imagining and driving 21st century solutions that put nature back into the picture.

Scarlett is Managing Director for Public Policy at The Nature Conservancy.

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


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