Chapter 2: Our Communities At Risk

Learn more about natural infrastructure in Naturally Stronger, which illustrates the importance of equitable investments in natural water infrastructure by highlighting successes across the country including contributions to national and local economies. Chapter 2 explores the most pressing threats to human health and safety that natural water infrastructure can address.
Stormwater Runoff, Washington, DC | Lynette Batt

It is easy to overlook the extent to which society depends on natural infrastructure until catastrophe strikes. We take for granted that water will continue to flow from the tap, reliable and safe, that our homes are protected, and that our local waterways are healthy. For over a century we have been steadily losing the natural systems that provide communities with clean water and sanitation, and protect against natural disasters. As we have lost this natural infrastructure, we have failed to adequately replace the lost services they provided. For decades, funding to maintain water systems has fallen short of the cost of providing safe drinking water, sewage treatment, and flood control. The result is decaying or outdated infrastructure that cannot keep pace with changing demand for water and wastewater treatment, growing populations, and increasingly severe storms. Below we explore the most pressing threats to human health and safety that natural water infrastructure can address.

Contaminated Drinking Water

Polluted runoff is taking its toll on drinking water supplies in rural, urban, and suburban communities alike. In agricultural regions, excess chemical fertilizer and manure from farmland runs off into rivers and streams, contaminating surface water and groundwater. The excess manure and fertilizers create toxic algae blooms, which shut down fisheries, beaches, and even municipal water supplies. In developed areas, rain that once soaked into fields and forests now runs off pavement, rooftops, and other hard surfaces, carrying heavy metals, bacteria, and other pollutants into storm drains and ultimately into local rivers, lakes, and streams, many of which are drinking water sources. Removing these pollutants from drinking water requires more involved treatment processes, which come at additional cost.

Water Scarcity

Water utilities across the country struggle to maintain adequate supplies during increasingly common drought conditions, particularly in communities with growing populations. The southeastern U.S., a region formerly known for its abundant water resources, has joined California and the Southwest in facing cyclical shortages. Growing water demand and changing weather patterns are exacerbated by development that replaces natural rainwater infiltration with roofs, roads, and other impervious surfaces. Instead of slowly replenishing aquifers and groundwater, rainwater quickly runs off these hard surfaces into storm drains, flooding urban neighborhoods and polluting waterways. As demands on finite water supplies increase and drought becomes more frequent and extreme, securing reliable water supplies will become increasingly challenging.

Reservoirs and water withdrawals to fill reservoirs often decrease river flows downstream. In extreme drought, they can run rivers dry. Middle Oconee River , Athens, Georgia — October, 2007 | Ben Emanuel

Overburdened Septic Systems

Many unincorporated communities suffer from a fundamental lack of basic services. Lost in the space between municipal utilities and county agencies, these communities often have no sidewalks or parks, meager transit service, and inadequate wastewater systems. In places like the Jane Addams neighborhood of Fresno, California, parts of the neighborhood are connected to city-provided sewer services while other homes, on unincorporated land, are dependent on overburdened septic tanks. These systems put the community at risk of exposure to untreated sewage, and maintenance costs are a burden for households struggling to get by. Hundreds of these unincorporated communities dot the country — 1.8 million residents in California alone, according to one PolicyLink estimate — victims of years of government neglect.

Sewer Overflows

Combined sewer systems dump millions of gallons of raw waste and other dangerous pollutants into rivers, creeks, and lakes — waters we may fish, swim, or boat in, or that may be sources of drinking water. According to American Rivers’ 2012 Growing Green report, every year up to 3.5 million people in the U.S. become sick from contact with water contaminated by sewage.

Hancock County, Mississippi flooding | FEMA, Mark Wolfe

Flooding

In the 21st century, floods have caused more property damage and fatalities in the U.S. than any other type of natural disaster. The National Weather Service’s 30 Year Flood Loss Average is estimated to be $7.96 billion in flooding damages per year. Heavy rains overwhelm stormwater and sewer systems in cities and towns. Dams, levees, and concrete flood control channels encourage people to build homes and businesses in the floodplain, putting themselves and property in harm’s way. Often these major investments fail to protect people and property, disrupt natural processes, and perpetuate an endless flood-damage-repair cycle. As the climate changes, bringing more frequent and intense storms and floods, the communities living near streams and rivers and on our coasts are increasingly at risk; and increasing numbers of communities are turning to natural storm and flood management as more sustainable, effective, and cost-efficient approaches.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated American Rivers’s story.