Incorporating Green Infrastructure into Our Cities

Sourced from Ecosystem Marketplace

In the US, as summer continues, so are the heavy spring rains, and more and more towns and cities in the Midwest are under water. These communities are suffering devastating losses from flooding, with roads and dams damaged, over 62 levees breached or overtopped and hundreds of miles of levees damaged along the Missouri River. Damage to water treatment plants and contamination of wells means that many towns were left without water and expected to be without drinking water service for weeks or even months.

What is even more worrying as we confront this crisis is that America’s critical water infrastructure – drinking water systems, dams, levees, and inland waterways – all received a D in the latest American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Report Card. We urgently need to reinvigorate bipartisan discussions, and especially action, around addressing our infrastructure deficit. Perhaps equally important may be changing how we think about infrastructure.

Most of our attention has been on our gray infrastructure – the pipes, pumps, dams, and treatment plants that provide safe drinking water, manage floods, and provide water for irrigation and energy. While gray infrastructure is extremely important, there is another kind of infrastructure that deserves much more attention – the natural, “green” infrastructure of forests, wetlands, floodplains, urban green spaces, and well-managed farms and ranchlands.

Green infrastructure reduces risks to gray infrastructure from hazards such as flooding and wildfire. It improves the performance and reduces the costs of operating gray water infrastructure when the two are integrated. In some cases, green infrastructure can be a more cost-effective alternative than gray. No one is currently bothering to grade our green infrastructure, yet keeping this infrastructure healthy is important to everyone in the US.

In the Southern US, more than 21 million people in towns and cities – about the population of Florida – get their clean drinking water from forests. Yet these forests have been disappearing at a rapid rate, with over 89 million acres lost between 2000 and 2017, about a 30% loss in that region. When wildfires destroy forest lands, as seen in the recent massive California fires, they cost utilities and ratepayers hundreds of millions to repair damaged infrastructure, dredge reservoirs, and purchase water from alternative sources. A recent review of just four wildfires in Colorado, Montana, and California found over $120 million in costs borne by water utilities. This doesn’t include the costs to federal and state agencies, cities, and local communities for fire suppression, and damage to property, transportation and energy infrastructure.

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