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01 Mar 2019

Better, cheaper, smarter: Nature as an infrastructure solution

Better, cheaper, smarter: Nature as an infrastructure solution

Natural disasters loomed large again in 2018, causing hundreds of deaths and billions in property damage. Since 1980, the United States has experienced 241 weather and climate-related disasters where damages exceeded $1 billion each. The total tally of these disasters is a staggering $1.6 trillion.  

With better infrastructure, the United States could significantly reduce these damages. Given the clear need to act, Congress is now turning bipartisan attention to enhancing infrastructure resilience. And nature itself is a solution.

“Natural infrastructure” can be clean, green and dollar-smart. By investing in restoration and conservation of nature, or by engineering solutions that use wetlands, soil, oyster reefs, floodplains and other natural systems, we can take a smarter approach to meeting America’s infrastructure needs.

This can mean culverts with natural features that are resilient in high-rainfall events. It can also mean urban green spaces that absorb and filter stormwater, reducing flooding and pollution, often at much less cost than refurbishing and investing in pipe and tunneling systems.

Or, it can mean using “living shorelines” of sea marshes, oyster reefs and dunes. In Howard Beach, New York, a study showed that a combination of natural and traditional built defenses could result in avoided losses of $244 million from an extreme storm.
Even beyond investing in nature, an important element of natural infrastructure is simply sustaining existing natural systems. The loss of urban trees in recent decades is estimated to cost cities $100 billion in increased storm water management needs, as these disappearing trees and unpaved lands had absorbed water flows.
The potential risk-reducing benefits of nature’s assets are not hypothetical. These solutions go beyond studies and concepts and are having real-world impact across the nation right now.

Philadelphia is putting nature back into the city to handle sewage overflow and stormwater at a fraction of the cost to replace pipes and tunnels. Seattle reduced the volume of runoff in one neighborhood by 98 percent by using natural infrastructure, and the price tag was 25 percent less than traditional tools.
In Hamilton City, California, The Nature Conservancy is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flood damage and restore ecosystems through levee setbacks and reconnecting 1,400 acres of Sacramento River floodplain.

That kind of success is clear at regional and national levels too.
A 2011 analysis of numerous studies found that salt marsh vegetation had a significant positive effect on reducing wave impacts and had significant positive effects on shoreline stability. Specifically, coastal wetlands prevented more than $625 million in property damages from Hurricane Sandy, according to a study with a global risk modeler for the insurance industry.

And, investments along the Gulf of Mexico and eastern seaboard in oyster reef restoration are helping protect communities while improving fisheries that are important for local economies.

The proven success of natural infrastructure is so compelling, many leading organizations, governments and agencies are now among its strongest advocates.
State governments such as Massachusetts are enhancing community resilience planning and investment with a focus on nature-based solutions. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, long the architect of old-style built infrastructure, has undertaken many natural infrastructure projects and recently released a report on “Engineering with Nature.”

But there are more opportunities for federal leadership as Congress looks to our infrastructure future. We will not have durable solutions without considering the effects of a changing climate — sea level rise, thawing permafrost in the Arctic, increased frequency of extreme storms and more. And we will not have the most cost-effective solutions unless we consider natural infrastructure in agency planning, in community hazard mitigation planning and associated investments.

Even incremental or seemingly unglamorous actions matter. We can increase reforestation through the Forest Service Reforestation Trust Fund. Congress and the White House can support the Federal Highway Administration doing infrastructure vulnerability assessments and training communities using its natural infrastructure guidance for transportation investments. 

What we should not do is replicate the past. Nature’s solutions are part of a better, cheaper smarter future — one that brings economic, safety and environmental benefits.
Lynn Scarlett is the vice president for public policy and government relations at The Nature Conservancy. She is a former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Source: The Hill

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