A Natural Vision for Water Part 4: Investing in Our Future

By Bobby Cochran, Community Resilience & Innovation Partner for Willamette Partnership and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leader. Bobby helped lead the state’s outreach and engagement for the Oregon 100-Year Water Vision, and specializes in water solutions that benefit the environment, health, and community development.

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 is the final post in 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. 

 

Our infrastructure is one generation’s embodiment of our hopes for the future. 

Prineville wetlands project - built ponds of water spread out on the landscape next to the natural path of a river.

Photo Courtesy of the City of Prineville.

Eisenhower built the national highway system that connected people across the nation. Wastewater treatment from 1900 to 1940 increased life expectancy 16 years because people stopped dying of cholera. And in the 1950s, the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers battled out who could deploy the most concrete and steel to store water and reduce flooding. 

The strategy was an intentional one — designed to increase the number of people who could live out West and increase the ability to feed the world. But it came at the cost of endangered salmon,  tribal fishing grounds lost beneath reservoirs, and rivers running dry in the summer. With only one goal in mind – flooding or storage – we lost sight of the bigger picture of the intersections between our health, environment, and economy.

We don’t have the resources or luxury to invest in infrastructure that only solves one problem at a time. Natural infrastructure can be a holistic approach that reflects our community and climate realities today. Forests store water, streams keep it clean, and wetlands are sponges that soak up spring-time floods. In our new Natural Infrastructure in Oregon report, there are already many examples of towns and farms using natural infrastructure in ways that save money, create economic opportunity, and protect the natural places that are refuges for us, fish, and wildlife.

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.

If we want to prioritize natural infrastructure solutions to make our communities more resilient to the challenges of the future, these principles must be embedded into all existing state and federal funding programs:

  1. Put natural and built infrastructure on an even playing field: The choice between steel and trees is a false choice. Where there’s flexibility, communities are combining these tools to pipe irrigation canals, extend rural broadband in those conduits, and restore streams and wetlands as part of a comprehensive vision for ensuring adequate water, power, and connectivity for farms, towns, and fish. 
  2. Our forests are reservoirs: Managing tree density and canopy cover has a significant impact on the ability of rain to recharge groundwater and trees to shade snowpack. Catastrophic fire releases tons of sediment that fill up the reservoirs we do have. We need to continue funding cooperative forest stewardship in public and private forests as part of our state’s strategy for maintaining water storage and summertime flows.
  3. Healthy streams keep water clean: Riparian forests protect and improve instream water quality, reducing the need for costly wastewater and drinking water treatment. In Oregon’s fall fires, riparian areas where invasive blackberries were removed appear to have slowed the advance and intensity of fire—saving structures, and actually improving the environment. 
  4. Nature is a capital improvement: Public and private finance treats nature differently than buildings. But they shouldn’t. We know a cover crop on a farm or a wetland above town can do the same job as an expensive piece of treatment equipment, while providing more co-benefits. We need states to clarify that investments in nature are capital improvements so towns and farms can access the kinds of public-private partnerships that are available to other types of infrastructure.
  5. Prioritize investments in multiple benefits: Nature improves human health, and restoration creates great jobs. Natural infrastructure often works overtime in meeting the multiple needs of communities. We don’t have the resources to invest in infrastructure that only solves one problem at a time.
  6. Natural infrastructure needs stewardship: No one expects a road to be free of potholes forever. So why would we expect that a forest doesn’t need ongoing care? Infrastructure funding programs need to move beyond a vision of “shovel ready,” and instead invest in the kinds of community engagement, regular updating of needs, and ongoing commitments to stewardship required to maintain great natural or built infrastructure. Oregon has proven this approach works. The Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds set the stage for 30+ years of investment in watersheds that work, and now Oregon has that advantage to build from. The Oregon Plan invested in community-centered collaboration, capacity for good planning, and joint investments in nature. 

The West is facing a series of decisions about what it wants its future to look like. Climate change is reducing water availability and warming streams in the summer, and creating more rain and flooding in the winter and spring. Our region is becoming more diverse, and our economies are growing. 

My hope is that we move toward a vision of thriving communities, not just of growth and control. For me, thriving means people live in harmony with nature, everyone has the opportunity for a job they love, and every family is healthy, supported, and included—no exceptions.

I think infrastructure, water infrastructure in particular, can be foundational to thriving communities in Oregon and the West. Now is the time for the next big bet. I bet on the role of nature in making sure we have plentiful, clean, affordable water for all.

 

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