The American Jobs Plan is a chance to reimagine nature as infrastructure
As Congress debates making massive investments in America’s aging infrastructure, and the Biden-Harris administration promotes its American Jobs Plan, there is a unique opportunity to drive a paradigm shift in how our nation approaches infrastructure solutions.
To address the threats ahead, with a changing climate at the forefront, our nation will need to focus on infrastructure that better integrates with the natural environment and builds resilience for urban and rural communities. And, because funding is not unlimited, we need to prioritize solutions that provide multiple layers of benefits — such as clean drinking water, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, public access to outdoor recreation, and the next generation of jobs in America.
New technologies and engineering advancements have made it possible to blend natural or green infrastructure with traditional or grey infrastructure, or, in some instances, use natural infrastructure alone. The scientific and economic data is mounting to prove that these approaches can provide just as many or more jobs, support additional community benefits, and often do so at a lower cost to taxpayers.
And several regions are leading the way in prioritizing these projects.
In New York, restoration and protection of the Catskill Mountains successfully filtered nearly one billion gallons of water a day for the 9.5 million residents of New York City over the last 25 years. By investing $2.5 billion in forests and help for farmers to manage their land for both food and clean water, the New York program has saved taxpayers approximately $10 billion in construction and maintenance costs for water filtration plants and reduced the impacts of flooding in the region.
Heading south, Louisiana’s $50 billion plan to restore coastal barrier islands and marshes in the Mississippi River Delta is slowing land loss to protect New Orleans and coastal communities from future hurricanes. The biggest project on deck, the Mid-Barataria diversion, is a grey-green blended infrastructure solution that would use the power of sediment within the Mississippi River to rebuild land. The project’s jobs, local economic benefits and positive outcomes for the seafood, charter boat, and recreational fishing industries are greater than anything concrete and steel alone could provide to the region. Both the Obama and Trump administrations were on board when it came time for federal permits for the project.
A decade ago, Kansas City pledged to use grey infrastructure to eliminate combined sewer overflows over 25 years at an estimated cost of $4.5 billion. In the early years of the effort, the city’s wastewater fees nearly tripled, creating a significant burden on local ratepayers, which drove the city to search for cheaper and more innovative approaches. Kansas City developed a different solution: 230 green infrastructure projects integrated with new digital technology to monitor stormwater flows. Today, even though the area experiences more extreme rainfall events than it did 10 years ago, total combined-sewer discharge is declining, and the city recently announced it intends to raise rates just 6 percent or less annually to fund its wastewater system improvements.
State governments are also transforming programs to embrace natural infrastructure projects like these.
North Carolina’s legislature is debating the bipartisan Disaster Relief and Mitigation Act that would invest additional millions in using nature to reduce flooding. And, this year, Maryland saw bipartisan support for a bill designed to attract more private finance, expand the state’s installation of natural infrastructure, and define “blue” or ocean-based infrastructure for the first time in any law.
Across the country, habitat restoration and natural infrastructure improvements of every size and scope — from installation of backyard rain gardens, to integration of wetlands into road systems, to restoration of floodplains to capture flood water — support more than 220,000 jobs and $25 billion in annual economic output.
These ideas seem to have the president’s support. Biden’s American Jobs Plan specifically references nature-based infrastructure, including restoration of forests, wetlands, watersheds and coastal and ocean resources.
As Congress shifts toward reauthorization of the Highway Bill and debates the inclusion of drinking water, wastewater and other infrastructure needs in a COVID-recovery jobs package, it will be important for decision-makers to picture more than just roads, bridges, concrete pipes and hardened seawalls when they think of infrastructure. It’s time for our Senate and House leaders to recognize the growing support for economic opportunities tied to nature-based solutions by making significant federal investments in programs that advance these priorities.
This will ensure that one of America’s biggest investments in decades will provide multiple layers of benefits for our society, economy and unmatched natural resources.
Christy Plumer is the chief conservation officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Tim Male is the executive director of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.
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