Bad grades present big opportunities

Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson
Former Vice President of Initiatives for The Freshwater Trust
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Alex has led the analysis, development and implementation of some of the first water quality trading programs in the Pacific Northwest. He has deep experience working directly with private and public entities to develop watershed restoration solutions for Clean Water Act compliance or to achieve voluntary conservation goals. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its latest infrastructure report card, and unfortunately, the U.S. is barely squeaking by with a D+. That’s a D – as in “dismal outlook” – for the state of our drinking water, stormwater and sewer services, as well as roads, bridges, dams, levees, railroads, airports, and energy delivery systems.

It’s not hard to see why. The recent near-failure of the Oroville Dam put more than 180,000 Californians at risk of major flooding and loss of their homes. In Boston last year, a truck sank into a flooded sinkhole at the site of a major water main break. A few months later, a collapsed sewer line in Los Angeles spilled 2.4 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Los Angeles River and forced the closure of local beaches.

There’s a lot to fix because first, there’s simply a lot: Approximately 51,000 community water systems deliver drinking water through 1 million miles of pipe to customers nationwide. And second, the vast majority of it is outdated: More than 14,000 wastewater treatment plants in the country are grappling with failing systems built in the 1960s and 1970s.

According to ASCE, it will cost $105 billion over the next 10 years to maintain and build out the complex network of pipes, pumps and plants. But in addition to repairing and replacing concrete and steel, we must be investing in nature to secure a more sustainable water future.

“The Report Card clearly demonstrates that our country has some serious work to do in terms of infrastructure,” said Greg DiLoreto, past president of ASCE. “It’s going to take an array of solutions to address these challenges, including considering the way the natural environment enhances infrastructure’s sustainability and resilience.”

Natural infrastructure, or green infrastructure, draws on solutions from the natural world to manage water. Protecting forests and watersheds, retaining vegetated buffers, and managing farmland sustainably are examples. When properly implemented at scale, these actions can have massive benefits for water quality, flood control, stormwater management and water quantity resiliency. Restoration projects also can have other environmental benefits that water managers rarely consider – like protecting endangered fish and bird habitat and carbon sequestration.

Wetland restoration, sustainable forestry, streamside revegetation and river remeandering can be combined effectively with engineered solutions for a holistic “portfolio approach” to address some of the greatest water issues our cities currently face. There are already some trailblazers of this approach in the American West.

“We have been able to strategize a cost-effective compliance portfolio by identifying green infrastructure options that work in tandem with new opportunities for traditional plant upgrades,” said Todd Miller, Environmental Management Analyst with the City of Springfield in Oregon. “We’re applying recycled water for irrigation, looking at storage and indirect discharge options, and have implemented pilot projects to generate credits from riparian shade, all to benefit the overall health of the Willamette watershed.”

And the money spent on natural infrastructure projects is money well spent. Green projects tend to be mostly self-maintaining and feature low or zero energy usage. For permitting and siting costs, as well as materials, natural solutions can be far less expensive than traditional concrete-and-steel approaches that achieve similar outcomes.

The Freshwater Trust has planted miles of native trees and shrubs along Oregon’s Rogue River and its tributaries as a way for the city of Medford’s water reclamation facility to meet its obligations under the Clean Water Act. The planted trees provide shade, which offsets the warm water being discharged into the river by the facility. The alternative to this program was building a giant cooling tower or holding pond, which would have cost $8 million more.

The projects also strengthen local economies.

Research by Nielsen-Pincus and Moseley published in Restoration Ecology shows that an average of 16 local jobs are created or supported for every $1 million spent on restoration. Streamside restoration projects, which tend to involve labor-intensive plantings and fencing, supported the most jobs and wages at 23.

Landowners participating in our planting program along the Rogue are financially compensated for allowing the revegetation activities on their land, which provides them with a steady income for 20 years. And local contractors, nurseries and restoration professionals receive more than 80 cents of every restoration dollar spent on this project.

In contrast to restoration, the engineered systems installed at a wastewater or drinking water plant usually cannot be purchased locally or installed by a local team of workers. The projects perform well for a period of time, but then often require extensive upgrades to continue operation. The ASCE report notes that approximately half of total annual expenditures in the wastewater sector go to operation and maintenance.

“One great attribute of natural infrastructure is that it only gets more valuable and more effective as it ages,” said Joe Whitworth, president of The Freshwater Trust. “Every other type of asset on a utility’s balance sheet depreciates.”

In this case, America is like a student, and we’re the ones responsible for bringing up this bad grade.

In addition to replacing the infrastructure that’s outdated and defunct, making investments in the sustainable management of land, the protection of forests, and the restoration of watersheds should be part of the improvement plan.

April 27, 2017

#gray infrastructure    #green infrastructure    #green solutions    #infrastructure    #natural infrastructure    #water treatment plant    

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