A Natural Vision for Water: Co-Benefits of Natural Infrastructure

Workers lay geo-textiles to stabilize river banks in the Foster flood-plain.

Workers stabilize the creek bank in the Foster flood-plain. © City of Portland, courtesy Bureau of Environmental Services

In collaboration with Willamette Partnership and the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies, OEC recently published a report demonstrating the benefits and opportunities associated with investing our state’s water infrastructure dollars in nature-based solutions. This post is the second of a four part series on the benefits and opportunities of natural infrastructure. OEC, Willamette Partnership, and our partners are working to shift policy to prioritize natural infrastructure solutions in community projects around the state. Read our full Natural Infrastructure in Oregon report to learn more. 

Natural infrastructure is an approach that respects, reclaims and restores the natural benefits of functioning ecosystems to achieve or assist with the same goals as traditional built infrastructure like treatment plants and dams. Oregon’s existing water infrastructure is aging or is already severely inadequate, and we need solutions that achieve multiple goals to benefit our communities today and into the future. 

What can this look like? Imagine:

  • A functioning floodplain that allows a river to spread out during high water events, protecting roads and homes from floods without the use of levees and riprap that try to confine the rising waters
  • A healthy, sustainably managed forest that filters drinking water, moderates flow in streams, and reduces costly treatment requirements, rather than relying on on gray infrastructure alone to store water
  • A series of built wetlands that provide a final round of treatment to wastewater rather than expensive and expansive filtration systems and concrete cooling towers
  • A healthy, functioning riparian woodland that cools water above the wastewater treatment plant’s discharge pipe, ensuring that the water discharged by the plant is cool enough for fish and other aquatic species
  • A community with numerous ecoroofs, green street swales, and natural areas that filter sediment and other pollutants carried by stormwater runoff while slowing the water’s headlong rush toward the nearest river rather than a community investing in more and bigger pipes to carry the stormwater directly to the river, pollutants and all

We believe that by incorporating more natural infrastructure approaches into our state’s toolkit for water management, we can accomplish more, benefit our communities and ecosystems, and pass savings along to Oregonians. 

However, greater incorporation of natural infrastructure projects into Oregon’s water management systems will require financial, social, regulatory, and political commitments from municipalities, state agencies, utilities, and developers. Fortunately, the returns on investment from those projects are high.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to some of Oregon’s thought leaders advocating for more natural infrastructure solutions as we look to build back better from the recent economic crisis and long-standing clean water challenges faced by communities across the state. 

In the second part of this series, we explore how natural infrastructure projects reach beyond the singular focus of most built infrastructure projects and have the potential to incorporate multiple co-benefits for community and environmental health.  

 

CO-BENEFITS OF NATURAL INFRASTRUCTURE

Natural infrastructure projects are often more cost-effective than their built infrastructure counterparts, and that’s no small thing for a municipality looking to do more with less. However, the best thing about natural infrastructure projects, aside from their effectiveness, is the myriad of co-benefits associated with them.

Co-benefits are the added benefits we get above and beyond the direct and intended benefits of a particular project or activity. Let’s look at the natural infrastructure projects described above and think about both the direct benefits of the project AND the co-benefits.

Restoring a functional floodplain on a flood-prone river can reduce the negative impact of flood events on nearby housing and roads, and schools and businesses, while reducing insurance costs for the municipality. But when a floodplain restoration project intentionally considers possible co-benefits, you can end up with habitat for a variety of wildlife, recreational opportunities for local residents, educational opportunities for families, vegetated buffers for removing pollution and increasing water infiltration (reducing runoff). The Foster Floodplain in Portland is an excellent example of this collection of co-benefits.

The Crooked River Wetlands, a built wetlands project in Prineville, brought the community together as school children designed educational plaques to be placed along the walking paths designed into the project.

Astoria manages their forest watershed not only to protect their drinking water, but to provide climate and economic co-benefits. By managing their forest sustainably and in accordance with carbon market requirements, the city is able to sell carbon credits and increase their revenue.

All these projects provide job opportunities of a new sort – managing the plants in a wetland, ensuring forest management that protects and stewards the project in perpetuity, providing on-going riparian management practices to control invasive or noxious weeds. 

We don’t have the resources to invest in infrastructure that only solves one problem at a time. Across the board, infrastructure projects that implement nature-based solutions while prioritizing community involvement and emphasizing the inclusion of co-benefits are not only cost-effective and environmentally friendly, they become building blocks in the development of a strong, diverse, and healthy community.

This blog is part of a series on the benefits and opportunities of natural infrastructure investments to make our communities more resilient to the challenges of the future. OEC and our partners are working to shift policy so that natural infrastructure solutions get priority placement in community projects around the state. Read our full Natural Infrastructure in Oregon report to learn more about common challenges and opportunities for action.

 

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