Full Report: Naturally Stronger

How Natural Water Infrastructure Can Save Money and Improve Lives

American Rivers
Mar 21, 2017 · 33 min read

This is the full version of Naturally Stronger, that illustrates the importance of making equitable investment in natural water infrastructure by highlighting successes across the country including contributions to national and local economies.

The Amy Joslin Memorial Eco-Roof on the Multnomah Building in Portland, Oregon is a 12,000 square foot green roof designed to control runoff, reduce pollutant loads, and add green space to the local community | Emily Hauth, Portland Bureau of Environmental Services

Executive Summary

Communities in the United States are being threatened by sewage overflows, flooding, polluted stormwater, leaky pipes, and at-risk water supplies. These threats are a result of our nation’s outdated water infrastructure and water management strategies, and their impacts fall disproportionately on low-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color that are already suffering from a lack of investment and opportunity. To solve this problem, we do not just need more investment in water infrastructure. We need a new kind of water infrastructure and management, and we need it in the right places. The solution is the equitable investment in and implementation of natural infrastructure. Naturally Stronger makes the case that if natural infrastructure is used in a more integrated water system, we can transform and restore our environment, invigorate the economy, and confront some of our country’s most persistent inequities.

Natural water infrastructure protects, restores, or mimics natural water systems, working with traditional infrastructure, like pipes and treatment plants, and reducing the strain on those systems. Examples include protecting source water streams that provide drinking water to our communities, reducing water treatment costs; protecting natural floodplain areas to reduce flood damage; and restoring or increasing urban trees and green space to soak up and clean polluted stormwater, which reduces the surges in stormwater pipes and prevents flooding. These natural solutions add flexibility and resiliency to our water infrastructure due to their ability to complement and supplement existing infrastructure efficiently and the ease with which they can be adapted to changing community needs.

It is easy to overlook the extent to which we depend 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. We have been steadily losing the natural systems that provide communities with these benefits, and as we have lost this natural infrastructure, we have failed to adequately replace the lost services they provide. 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. While these challenges affect all communities, the most severe impacts often fall on low-wealth communities and communities of color due to historic underinvestment and disinvestment in these communities.

Equitable investment in water infrastructure explicitly engages community voice, policy, planning, investment, hiring, contracting, and operations to ensure that historically underserved communities receive the water infrastructure investment they need, in a manner that improves public health, improves livability, and supports community cohesion. Since, historically, infrastructure investments have closely followed the geography of opportunity — higher income areas have high-quality infrastructure investments, and low income areas have suffered decades of underinvestment and disinvestment, and crumbling systems of transportation, schools, and, in particular, drinking water and waste water. These disadvantaged communities often lack adequate infrastructure, lack affordable water rates, and lack access to clean, safe water.

Disadvantaged communities are often located in floodplains, in drained wetlands, or adjacent to sewage outfalls, as a result of historic discrimination. Besides suffering damage to health and livelihood, their problems then flow downstream, affecting other communities and ecosystems. By addressing the infrastructure needs of vulnerable communities, we are addressing the water quality needs of everyone. New equitable water infrastructure investments can play a fundamental role in local and regional economies, and ensure that historically underinvested communities — where the greatest water vulnerabilities manifest — can both address water security and advance greater economic inclusion. To ensure equitable water infrastructure investments, vulnerable communities must have a voice in where and how investments in water infrastructure are made.

Water infrastructure and equity challenges can be effectively overcome together through a more holistic approach, particularly when natural infrastructure, with its flexibility, is included as part of the solution. This “integrated” or One Water approach to water management centers on breaking down ‘silos’ to create holistic, coordinated water systems that maximize economic, social, and environmental benefits in an equitable and sustainable manner. This integrated approach is achieved by bringing together city agencies, nonprofits, and other diverse stakeholders for collective problem-solving and decision-making that benefits all members of the community.

Natural infrastructure provides substantial economic and social benefits to the nation and to neighborhoods. The U.S. Water Alliance states in their Value of Water report that the U.S. needs to invest an additional $82 billion per year in water infrastructure — both natural and traditional — to meet projected needs. The same report states that by closing this gap over $220 billion in total annual economic activity would be added to the economy every year and would sustain approximately 1.3 million jobs over the next 10 years. In addition, investment in natural infrastructure creates local jobs.

According to a report by the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland, natural infrastructure often increases local jobs, since these practices rely more heavily on local workers for installation and continued maintenance, in contrast to traditional infrastructure, which often relies on larger firms that outsource the work. As the number and scope of natural infrastructure initiatives increase, opportunities for developing more jobs will increase as well. According to the Brookings Institute, green job growth outpaced traditional job growth at a rate of nearly 2-to-1 in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan centers from 2008 to 2010, providing diverse, career-starting opportunities in growth industries for communities that need them most.

Communities that have invested in natural infrastructure have not only reaped the economic benefits, but also have experienced other social benefits as well. Studies demonstrate that people with access to parks and green space live healthier, lower-stress lives. They have an easier time living active outdoor lifestyles, reducing medical expenses. And, of course, clean local waterways, improved by reductions in polluted runoff, mean higher-quality drinking water and safer places to recreate.

To address the significant water infrastructure needs of the nation, greater investments in both natural and traditional water infrastructure are needed. From major metropolitan areas to unincorporated rural communities — particularly those home to low-wealth communities and communities of color –investments are needed to address the consequences of long deferred maintenance, underinvestment, and disinvestment. And while infrastructure investments face budget restrictions at all levels of government, integrated water management approaches can often deliver overall cost savings by simultaneously addressing multiple issues and providing multiple benefits. Going forward, we will need to use existing water infrastructure funding mechanisms in order to implement natural infrastructure at the scale and scope needed to address our nation’s water infrastructure inequities. Funding mechanisms for natural infrastructure are diverse and include traditional mechanisms such as bonds, general funds, and state revolving funds as well as innovative approaches like public/private partnerships or incorporating water management in all types of infrastructure projects.

Naturally Stronger provides an overview and introduction to the water challenges we face and lays out the need for investment in water infrastructure and why natural water infrastructure is a necessary component of that investment. This investment comes with both economic and social benefits that can be optimized by planning, designing, investing, and implementing new water infrastructure in an intentional, equitable, and integrated fashion. But we cannot achieve these results by using the same water management strategies we have used in the past.

To achieve more effective and equitable water infrastructure we must engage with multiple, cross-cutting stakeholders. Where our planning and decision-making tables are too small or exclusive, we must make them bigger and add more chairs, integrating communities and partners that have not always had a seat at the table. The water management sector must break out of the silos that constrain diverse and innovative solutions. The challenge before us is clear. The solutions are tangible. The moment to create a better future for clean water and communities is now.

Water Running through Hands | Pexels

Chapter 1: Naturally Stronger

We hear it often: the U.S. has an infrastructure problem. And while crumbling roads and failing bridges are the images most commonly invoked, the state of another huge component — the nation’s water infrastructure — is equally troubling. Sewage overflows, localized flooding, polluted runoff, leaky pipes and at-risk water supplies plague our communities. Water infrastructure across our country is outdated.

The American Water Works Association conservatively estimates it will cost $1 trillion over the next quarter century to upgrade our drinking water systems alone. Additionally, the American Society of Civil Engineers determined that over $271 billion in investment is needed for current and future demands for wastewater infrastructure.

Furthermore, low-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color, which already suffer from a lack of investment and opportunity, are impacted the most. There is an urgent need for equitable investments in water infrastructure in both urban and rural communities across the country. These communities disproportionately experience the effects of urban flooding, combined sewer overflows and the health burdens of poor water quality. Low-wealth communities also tend to have fewer trees and green space, which help mitigate flooding and stormwater impacts. To address these problems, we do not just need more investment in water infrastructure, we need a new kind of water infrastructure and management and we need it in the communities that have historically been left out of water infrastructure investments. Tackling America’s water infrastructure needs presents us with a unique opportunity to grow the economy and foster positive transformation in our communities. The solution is equitable investment in and implementation of natural infrastructure.

While investments in traditional “gray” infrastructure will be essential moving forward, natural infrastructure will be a critical complement that will go a long way to protecting our drinking water and reducing sewer overflows, polluted stormwater, and community flooding. Natural infrastructure refers to a variety of practices that protect, restore, or mimic natural water systems. Examples include restoring or increasing urban trees to soak up and clean polluted stormwater and prevent flooding, or protecting source water streams that provide drinking water to our communities. These more resilient natural solutions efficiently safeguard and manage water in ways that improve quality of life — all at lower cost than traditional “gray” infrastructure.

Traditional, or gray, water infrastructure that depends on pipes and treatment facilities to move stormwater, wastewater, and drinking water from one place to another can be improved upon with less cost by investing in natural infrastructure. By protecting or mimicking natural water systems, we eliminate some of the strain on traditional infrastructure. For example, wetlands located in areas upstream of communities naturally absorb and hold floodwater; rain gardens in urban areas provide a similar function. These systems, which are cheaper to build than concrete pipes or holding ponds, retain and infiltrate water into the soil and take the burden off the existing piped water system.

If natural infrastructure is used in an integrated water system, we can transform and restore our environment, invigorate the economy, and confront some of our country’s most persistent inequities. This “integrated” approach is achieved by bringing together different city agencies, nonprofits, and other diverse stakeholders that work on water together on collective problem-solving and decision-making that benefits the diverse members of the community.

Integration will be critical: we need to look across institutional barriers to account for and manage water throughout its natural cycle — from the time it flows into our drinking water system to when it is flushed to our wastewater plants and into our rivers and lakes. This means the multitude of city, state, and federal agencies that manage water must break out of their silos and work together across sectors and with local nonprofits and community-based organizations to develop holistic water management solutions.

We must also own a painful truth: that for too long many communities have received far less than their share of services and opportunities. Any successful infrastructure initiative must address these historic inequities, creating ways for historically disenfranchised people to participate in decision-making and reap the benefits of implementation.

Stormwater Runoff | Wilmington, NC City Government

A Weakened System

America’s water system is not monolithic. Some cities get their drinking water from carefully stewarded rivers and lakes, while others rely on complex filtration systems or private wells. Our wastewater management systems are equally diverse with varying levels and types of treatment ranging from treatment plants to treatment wetlands.

Stormwater management systems are likewise varied with some systems connecting directly to streams while other systems combine with waste water pipes that connect to treatment plants. Yet across the country these systems — our nation’s water infrastructure — are failing and aging out. Growing populations that are increasingly spread out, new technology requirements of a rapidly changing economy, and several decades of underinvestment have combined to create a sizable backlog of water infrastructure projects all over the country.

Natural systems make up a critical component of our nation’s water infrastructure, supporting and enhancing our traditional water infrastructure by providing water flow regulation, flood control, water purification, and water temperature regulation. Unfortunately, these systems are being lost to unsustainable development and poor management, which causes fragmentation and degradation. The continued loss of these forests, floodplains, and wetlands that provide essential services to water utilities, businesses, and communities serves to compound our water infrastructure challenges.

Long-term forecasts suggest our water systems will be further strained by changing weather and climate and there is a great need for adaptation to accommodate these changes. Storm frequencies, intensities, and duration are shifting, and in many regions, more severe storms are expected to occur more often. Storm sewer and flood control systems will be asked to handle these surges, forcing developers and municipalities to adopt new strategies. Elsewhere, drought leaves communities unable to provide adequate drinking water for residents. How do we face a future with too much water, too little water, and water at the wrong time?

New Solutions to Strengthen Communities

Many cities, towns, and neighborhoods are recognizing the interconnections between water infrastructure, quality of life, and economic development. They are using nature as infrastructure — either by protecting it or mimicking it — to efficiently safeguard and manage water in a way that improves lives at lower costs than traditional “gray” pipe infrastructure.

The cities and towns that have started using natural infrastructure are doing so for good reason. A report by the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland found natural infrastructure increases local jobs, since these practices rely on local workers for installation and continued maintenance. Moreover, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics summary, Green Goods and Services 2013, found that the green jobs sector, of which natural infrastructure is a part, was responsible for 3.4 million jobs. According to the Brookings Institute, green job growth outpaced traditional job growth at a rate of nearly 2-to-1 in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan centers from 2008 to 2010, providing diverse, career-starting opportunities in growth industries for communities that need them most. As the number and scope of natural infrastructure initiatives increase, opportunities for developing more jobs will increase as well.

By deploying natural solutions to water infrastructure challenges, communities across the country are saving money, revitalizing local economies, and improving water quality while delivering a host of other benefits to their communities — from parks and open space to new employment opportunities. These nature-based strategies are replicable and viable, across the geographic spectrum, in metropolitan and rural areas alike.

Putting Equity at the Center of Infrastructure Investment

Center for Neighborhood Technology planting a rain gardens at a community school | Center for Neighborhood Technology, Creative Commons

Equitable water infrastructure is an approach designed to ensure that the voices of underserved communities are heard and their challenges and needs identified, then adequately addressed in a manner that engages the community and improves quality of life.

Equitable water infrastructure approaches include:

· Targeting resources for systems improvements to communities with the most compromised water and waste water service through approaches such as set-asides and priority scoring

· Engaging firms and workers from disadvantaged communities to design, build, operate, and maintain the water infrastructure systems

· Ensuring community voices and authority in planning, prioritizing, and implementing new infrastructure investments

· Improving health and quality of life outcomes for communities with compromised water systems

Recognizing and replicating this new approach can have wide-ranging benefits throughout the U.S. It can play a pivotal role in building a sustainable economy, engaging disadvantaged communities in the skills and business growth of this emerging sector, and it can create healthier environments for the communities that have faced the greatest environmental and health vulnerabilities. To achieve maximum impact, the investments must take into account — and seek to correct for — longstanding inequities in the water services a community receives. These inequities are evident in some of the nation’s recent environmental disasters: the exposure by Flint residents to lead-poisoned water; the thousands of water shutoffs in Baltimore and Detroit neighborhoods; the still unrecovered African American neighborhoods of New Orleans inundated by the levee breeches after Hurricane Katrina; and the intentionally exclusionary municipal boundaries that have left rural residents from California to Texas in unincorporated communities without clean water or sewer access.

We need transparency and accountability for infrastructure decision-making. We must ask ourselves: Who benefits, who pays, and who decides where resources are allocated? How do we ensure that low-wealth communities and communities of color are assured the same protections, services, and opportunities as everyone else?

Equitable approaches have delivered environmental justice remediation in the Bay View Hunters Point neighborhood surrounding the San Francisco PUC’s water treatment plant; have given contracts to the Portland, Oregon-based social enterprise Verde, to build swales and stormwater protection in vulnerable immigrant and Native American neighborhoods; and have dedicated millions to natural stormwater treatment in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. Moreover, calls for water equity continue from Flint, Michigan, to remediate the lead and ensure safe drinking water for the future.

As with any other type of infrastructure, we must make water infrastructure an equity issue.

This is more than a moral imperative; it is an economic one. Ample research confirms that widening inequality slows economic growth. Meanwhile, systematically neglected racial and ethnic groups are growing in population. By 2042, the majority of those living in America will be people of color, according to PolicyLink’s 2011 report, America’s Tomorrow. Matching support with where it is most needed, allowing those who have been left behind to participate, contribute, and benefit, will increasingly benefit the economy overall.

A New Infrastructure Paradigm: Gray, Green, and In Between

This rain garden catches stormwater from a large parking lot in Nevade City, CA | Jacob Dyste

Perhaps the image of water infrastructure that springs most readily to mind is the drain pipe: a conduit to take wastewater away quickly and invisibly. Traditionally we have taken a similar approach to stormwater and urban drainage: endless miles of buried pipes, sewers, and tunnels that carry the water off for treatment or discharge.

Most people are happy with this “out of sight, out of mind” arrangement — until, of course, a toilet backs up, a basement floods, or the local lake becomes clogged with toxic algae. While effective for the time period when much of it was built, these “gray” infrastructure approaches are expensive, and provide only limited benefits to the communities they serve.

Concrete and steel infrastructure will always play a critical role in water conveyance and treatment, but the smart path forward for any community seeking to maximize effectiveness and minimize cost is to integrate it with natural infrastructure.

The portfolio of natural infrastructure practices includes a variety of engineered systems that are proven tools to reduce or prevent flows of runoff into over-stressed sewer systems and waters, while providing tangible benefits to neighborhoods and communities. These systems, referred to as Natural Stormwater Infrastructure, can include using rooftop vegetation to control stormwater and reduce energy use, constructing wetlands to retain floodwater, installing permeable pavement to mimic natural hydrology, and using or reusing water more efficiently on site. Communities that have incorporated natural stormwater infrastructure into their water management regimes have reduced energy costs, diminished the impacts of flooding, and improved public health. Access to clean water and the green spaces provided by natural infrastructure correlate with improved air quality, healthier lifestyles, and lower medical bills, according to Banking on Green, the 2012 American Rivers, American Society of Landscape Architects, ECONorthwest, and Water Environment Federation report. Natural infrastructure practices typically utilize plants to cover or replace concrete, reducing or eliminating heat islands and improving air quality. Additionally, many of these systems provide green space for recreation or community amenity.

After levee breaches during a large flood the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) completed two levee setback projects that reconnected over 1700 acres rather than rebuild the levees | United States Army Corps of Engineers

Chapter 2: Our Communities At Risk

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.

Stormwater Runoff, Washington, DC | Lynette Batt

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.

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

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.

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


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.

Water treatment wetlands at Clayton County Water Authority, Flint River, Georgia | Jeremy Diner

Chapter 3: A New Approach to Natural Infrastructure

Traditionally, drinking water-, wastewater-, and stormwater-related challenges would be tackled in isolation, without regard for the interconnections between them. However, the scale and scope of America’s water challenges demand a new approach. Rather than dividing the waters into separate categories, the new approach manages water as a single resource and utilizes the combined benefits of natural and gray infrastructure. Forward-thinking communities across the country are adopting proven technology, tools, and policies that promote reconnecting the waters and re-establishing or mimicking the natural water cycle. This integrated approach is the future of water management.

We call it One Water.

One Water | Water Environment & Reuse Foundation.

One Water is an attempt to catalyze the shift toward an integrated approach to water management by bringing different city agencies, nonprofits, community voices, and other stakeholders that work on various aspects of water together for collective problem-solving and decision-making.

We must recognize all the benefits of water, and acknowledge that trade-offs occur as decisions are made. We must recognize that infrastructure decisions impact other critical dimensions of how our communities evolve, and build a large enough table to include everyone — particularly communities of color and low-wealth neighborhoods that have been historically excluded from the process and have shouldered a disproportionate share of the burdens associated with established policies and practices. A transparent, inclusive approach will afford decision makers the opportunity to allocate resources, investments, and opportunities with an equity lens. This level of accountability is critical.

The One Water integrated approach also yields benefits along the full water continuum — from headwaters to the tap and, ultimately, America’s oceans, lakes, and bays. By looking at the challenge comprehensively, we are guided toward solutions that integrate natural infrastructure with gray infrastructure, with an emphasis on restoring and enhancing natural processes. The major components of such an approach are described below.

Protecting Source Waters

Across the country, approximately 117 million Americans rely on small headwater streams at least in part for their drinking water supply. Numerous studies have affirmed the intuitive: high-quality source water can reduce treatment costs. Source water refers to the streams, rivers, or lakes that are used for drinking water. Water utilities with well-protected source waters avoid dredging and maintenance costs, and even major capital investments, by bypassing elements of the conventional treatment process. Rivers with protected source waters are also less prone to costly, dangerous flooding and are better able to maintain water supply through dry seasons. The health of these small streams and wetlands is critical to the health of the entire water system, providing (in addition to drinking water) food, recreational opportunities, and wildlife habitat.

Rain Garden with a curb vut in Portland, Oregon | Emily Hauth, Portland Bureau of Environmental Services

Urban Water Infrastructure

Stormwater infrastructure can perform double duty if designed to filter and store rainwater while creating much-needed green space in densely populated urban areas. Designing stormwater management practices in this way, referred to as natural stormwater infrastructure, is an approach to water management that protects, restores, or mimics the natural water cycle in an urban environment.

This includes rain gardens, permeable pavements, green roofs, infiltration planters, trees and tree boxes, and rainwater harvesting systems. These engineered techniques focus on collecting stormwater and infiltrating it into soil or stone basins where it is filtered of pollutants and gradually seeps into the ground and through shallow groundwater, back to the nearest stream or river.

Riverside Land Conservation

Healthy, protected forested areas along rivers — known as riparian buffers — enhance and maintain water quality while supporting thriving wildlife and recreational amenities. A 2016 report by American Rivers and the University of Maryland, The Economic Value of Riparian Buffers, noted that buffers on private property raise home values. (A restoration project on Watts Branch, a heavily developed tributary of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, dramatically cut erosion and polluted stormwater while putting people to work, restoring part of Marvin Gaye Park and creating other recreational amenities for local residents.)

Levee Setback on the Tolt River, Washington | Earth Economics

Floodplain Conservation

Major rivers and their floodplains deliver a wealth of economic, natural, and social benefits. They contain our country’s richest farmland and provide recreational opportunities as well as commercial, residential, and industrial development worth billions of dollars.

Historically, floodplains were easy and attractive places to build, which disconnected many rivers from the surrounding land and is why so many people and businesses are now at risk from catastrophic floods. Across the country, communities are proving the benefits of keeping rivers connected to their floodplains, integrating flood control and restoration projects that improve public safety and the health of the environment while supporting agriculture, a vibrant economy, and recreation.

Groundwater Recharge

Natural infrastructure practices that allow rainwater to filter back into the ground contribute to the recharge of both deep aquifers and subsurface groundwater — critical drinking and irrigation water sources for many parts of the country. Managers of the overdrawn Pajaro Valley Aquifer, which provides more than 90 percent of the water used by the $600 million agriculture industry in Santa Clara County, California, solved their problem by installing soils with high percolation and infiltration rates. An investment analysis conducted by Earth Economics found the project not only helped with water supply and flood control, it saved money, returning nearly two dollars for every dollar invested after 10 years.

Installing permeable pavement at Lawrence’s Fisheries a restaurant in Chicago, Illinois | Center for Neighborhood Technology, Creative Commons

Chapter 4: Natural Infrastructure — An Economic Engine

Investments in natural infrastructure, in tandem with investments in water infrastructure generally, provide a significant boost to our economy and job creation. The U.S. Water Alliance’s 2017 report The Value of Water found that the U.S. needs to invest an additional $82 billion per year in water infrastructure — both natural and traditional — to meet projected needs. If this investment gap is closed, over $220 billion in total annual economic activity will be added to the economy every year and would sustain approximately 1.3 million jobs over the next 10 years.

In addition to adding to economic growth, investments in natural infrastructure provide future savings, as it is vastly cheaper to protect clean water than to clean up dirty water later. One EPA study, for example, looked across six communities in the U.S. and found that on average every $1 spent on source water protection saved $27 in future contamination cleanup costs. On a national scale, policies that favor or stimulate the wider adoption of natural infrastructure strategies will go a long way toward reducing the infrastructure funding needs facing the nation.

Investments in water infrastructure that include natural infrastructure would accelerate the already rapidly growing natural infrastructure job sector, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as jobs or businesses that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources. According to their 2017 report Exploring the Green Infrastructure Workforce, Jobs for the Future estimates that almost 3 million people are employed in the natural infrastructure field (in all natural infrastructure fields, including water, forestry, and parks) and that this workforce will grow by five percent over the next five years. According to a Brookings Institution report, green job growth outpaced traditional job growth at a rate of nearly 2-to-1 in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan centers from 2008 to 2010, providing diverse, career-starting opportunities in growth industries for communities that need them most.

Maintenance of a 6,400 square foot Green Roof on a Chicago skyscraper | Center for Neighborhood Technology, Creative Commons

Natural infrastructure investments are creating jobs in communities that need them. The Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national network of organizations working to advance a sustainable environment while advancing sustainable, just, and inclusive economies, are working in over a dozen cities to train people of color and those with work barriers in jobs in energy efficiency, water systems, food systems, and building retrofitting. Many utilities and state infrastructure initiatives are structuring community benefits frameworks within infrastructure investments to target local workers, disadvantaged workers and firms, and disadvantaged communities. In addition to these efforts, the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland has documented that these types of jobs are often local in nature since natural solutions utilize local workers for installation and long-term maintenance. This contrasts with gray infrastructure projects, which often rely on larger companies that have existing, trained labor pools outside of the communities where the infrastructure is being built or maintained. This increased engagement of local workers has a greater positive and long-lasting impact on local economies.

The fact that many of these natural infrastructure jobs are local is catalytic, making it possible to establish workforce pipelines and explicitly target public works jobs to disadvantaged workers — as many previous public works and job corps initiatives have done since the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which hired millions of workers to build infrastructure during the Great Depression. According to a 2012 Green for All report, Using a Jobs Frame to Promote the Use of Green Infrastructure, operations and maintenance jobs involving trimming trees, landscaping, roofing, and construction are accessible and stable, provide fair wages, and offer opportunities for career advancement. Some organizations are already trying to capitalize on this fact by building job training programs for youth, like the Young Adult Corps project created by Los Angeles Conservation Corps. This program focuses on different Green Career Pathways, including one that focuses on natural infrastructure practices. Another example is the Water Environment Federation’s development of the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP), the goal of which is to provide training and an entry point for workers into the natural stormwater management sector. Certification programs like these provide workers a new and unique set of skills and a formal endorsement by a national water sector association, allowing these workers to more easily enter the growing natural infrastructure job sector.

State and local government can play an important role in ensuring that natural infrastructure helps connect our most disinvested communities with real opportunity through contracting and hiring policies. To ensure local communities and individuals are not excluded from emergent employment opportunities, public agencies should ensure the presence of local workforce development programs, like the Young Adult Corps or the NGICP, in disinvested communities, and prioritize contracting directly through such programs, while requiring private property owners to hire only trained and certified contractors to install and maintain publicly funded natural stormwater infrastructure.

It is also important that job training programs and government efforts focus efforts on providing opportunities for people of color as well. People of color face significant barriers to employment. This holds true for the natural infrastructure sector as well, though there are real opportunities to overcome these barriers, and there are promising efforts already underway. In Oregon, Portland Parks and Recreation has begun targeted outreach and recruitment efforts in communities of color, making their programs more accessible and inclusive. Jobs for the Future has estimated that as the number and scope of initiatives to implement natural infrastructure increases, opportunities for developing distinct natural infrastructure jobs will grow as well. Outreach programs like those in Portland as well as natural infrastructure training and certification programs may help upskill workers, provide opportunities for the local workforce, and create new career pathways for people in low-wealth communities and communities of color.

Whether it is targeted at disinvested communities or communities of color, natural infrastructure, particularly its subset of natural stormwater infrastructure, is a relatively inexpensive and efficient means of putting individuals to work. These job investments have ripple effects throughout the rest of the economy. Take Verde Landscape, for instance, a Portland, Oregon-based enterprise, which employs low-income people of color at living wages to build and maintain natural stormwater infrastructure facilities. According to PolicyLink’s recent report, Jobs & Equity in the Urban Forest, every dollar spent on a Verde Landscape natural stormwater infrastructure project generates almost two dollars of economic activity in the greater Portland area.

While the full spectrum of employment and economic impact of natural infrastructure has yet to be quantified, we can draw inferences on the scale of the impact of the sector from available data. Researchers at the University of North Carolina calculated that the ecological restoration sector, a narrow field that focuses on repairing damaged environments, alone directly employs approximately 126,000 workers nationally, and supports nearly another 100,000 jobs indirectly, contributing a combined $25 billion to the economy annually. And public lands, many of which include natural infrastructure, plow money back into the economy through recreational activities, with the Outdoor Industry Association citing that its companies employ 6.1 million people, generating roughly $40 billion in federal tax revenue.

Yoga on the 60 acre green space at Menomonee Valley Industrial Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Susan Vilet and Wenk Associates

Chapter 5: Community Benefits of Integrated Infrastructure

Communities that have invested heavily in natural infrastructure have seen the way it can improve the lives of their residents. Studies have demonstrated that people with access to parks and green space live healthier, lower-stress lives. They have an easier time living active outdoor lifestyles, reducing medical expenses. Rain gardens, bioswales, and other installations boost nearby property values, and save residents money on both water utility fees and electricity. And of course clean local waters, improved by reductions in polluted runoff, mean high-quality drinking water.

Yet the inescapable fact remains that these benefits are not enjoyed by all. People from lower-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color are far less likely to have access to green space than those from higher-income areas. Disinvested communities have higher toxicity levels in their air and water, along with higher rates of long-term unemployment. As we further explore the co-benefits of natural solutions to water infrastructure needs, these historic injustices require a reckoning. How can planning and investment strategies benefit marginalized communities without forcing existing residents out? Is there a way to increase access to green space in low-income communities while also creating living-wage jobs for people facing barriers to employment? A starting place is approaching natural water infrastructure planning, design, and implementation using an integrated approach that engages the leadership of local community stakeholders and provides opportunities to create equitable outcomes for low-wealth communities and communities of color.

Protecting Our Health

When stormwater is allowed to carry toxic pollutants into drinking water supplies, recreational waters, and productive fish and shell fishing areas, people get sick and businesses suffer. An Environmental Protection Agency study found that contamination and loss of aquatic species and habitats from polluted stormwater runoff costs the commercial fish and shellfish industry up to $30 million every year. Illness and death caused by eating contaminated seafood is estimated to cost local economies an average of $22 million per year from missed work days, medical expenses, and investigations. Natural stormwater infrastructure can help stop this type of pollution before it becomes a critical problem.

Rain barrels are installed to help reduce flooding and stormwater pollution as part of a neighborhood revitalization plan in Landsdowne, Pennsylvania | Sara (Deuling) Strassman

Reducing Energy Demand and Pollution

Natural stormwater infrastructure can dramatically reduce energy consumption, saving residents and businesses money. The shade and insulation provided by green roofs, street trees, and urban green spaces reduce heating and cooling needs for homes and buildings.

And by reusing harvested rainwater, residents and property owners use less potable water for landscaping, gardening, and toilet flushing, reducing water treatment, piping, and pumping needs for cities’ utilities. These energy savings translate into reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and ground level ozone, improving air quality.

Building Safe and Healthy Communities

An extensive body of research has found that people living close to nature — including well-maintained green spaces — are less stressed and less prone to anxiety, have lower blood pressure and cholesterol, have lower rates of obesity, have faster recovery from surgery and heart attacks, and show more improvement managing attention and behavioral disorders. A series of studies including those by Kuo and Sullivan (2001), Hartig, et al (1991), and Ovitt (1996) illustrated that proximity to nature also reduces mental fatigue and stress, which in turn leads to declines in crime and violence. The need for more natural areas is particularly acute in systematically disinvested neighborhoods, where parks and trees are in short supply.

Washington, DC Rooftop Garden at Bread for the City | Bread for the City

These tend to be the same neighborhoods in cities like Detroit and Cleveland that suffer from a dearth of affordable and nutritious food options. Many low-income urban neighborhoods have been classified as “food deserts” where residents lack access to stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

Natural infrastructure can be integrated with urban agriculture to efficiently use space while helping address food access challenges. The Real Food Farm in Baltimore, for example, which is dedicated to improving access to just and sustainable food for local residents, has incorporated natural stormwater infrastructure into their urban farm to reduce polluted runoff into nearby Harris Creek.

Natural water infrastructure has also become a common component in street designs. So-called “green streets” emphasize neighborhood beautification and are particularly popular near schools, creating safe places for children to walk or bicycle through curbside rain gardens and other natural stormwater infrastructure.

The Naches River in Yakima County, WA has experienced repeat flooding events causing levee damage. For the past two decades the County has worked to implement a comprehensive flood plan that includes floodplain acquisition, floodplain restoration, and levee setbacks. | Eileen Shader

Chapter 6: Funding Natural Infrastructure

The question of financing is central to the water infrastructure challenge. The evidence is clear that investments have failed to keep up with demand. From major metropolitan areas to unincorporated rural communities — particularly those home to people of color and those surviving on a small incomes — our water infrastructure is inadequate, failing, or both. While our infrastructure needs face budgetary restrictions at all levels of government, integrated approaches to water management offer new funding models that deliver huge overall cost savings.

We must acknowledge that equity has hitherto been missing from our conversations on infrastructure funding, and take corrective steps. Addressing equity concerns will not only achieve greater fairness and opportunity, but can create the conditions necessary to sustain economic growth. Successfully building equity into infrastructure planning, decision-making, and spending can result in the political consensus needed for new funding and can yield projects that more effectively address the unique needs of communities. Below is a brief overview of currently available funding mechanisms.

Municipal Bonds

The most commonly used method to finance water infrastructure is the sale of municipal bonds — long-term, often tax-exempt debt issued by local governments or the public water systems they operate. Most frequently, the bonds issued to finance water infrastructure are issued directly by the water system. Water systems serving over 100,000 people are able to go to the financial markets directly to raise capital, though they sometimes may also use State Revolving Fund loans to reduce their borrowing costs.

State Revolving Fund

State Revolving Funds (SRFs) are two low-interest loan programs generally used for water planning and capital projects. The Clean Water SRF is dedicated to stormwater and wastewater systems, and the Safe Drinking Water SRF is dedicated to drinking water systems. The program funds are allocated by Congress and directed to states by the EPA. State fund managers then distribute funds to water utilities through an application process. In addition to treatment plant upgrades, the SRF program can be used for natural infrastructure projects.

One example is the project to reduce sediment pollution flowing into the Jordan River near Salt Lake City, Utah. A partnership project between Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County received $484,200 in CWSRF funds to restore four sites along the Jordan River. It is expected that this project will effectively eliminate approximately 950 cubic yards of sedimentation from the Jordan River annually, improving water quality by reducing erosion and increasing dissolved oxygen levels.


State and federal grants provide additional funding for water quality improvements provided by both new development and retrofit projects. The EPA-administered 319 Grant Program funds projects that reduce nonpoint source water pollution. Some states use a portion of their SRF allocation for grants. One such state, California, gives priority to projects in underinvested communities.

Taxes and General Funds

Tax revenue, predominantly from property, income, and sales taxes, usually contributes the greatest amount to municipal general funds, and many communities rely on taxes to fund their public works, including stormwater management. Though appropriated for specific purposes through the budget process, general funds are relatively consistent from year to year and may be used by local governments for any legal purpose.

Public Private Partnerships

Public-private partnerships can take many different forms. This approach engages the private sector more deeply in funding infrastructure projects to meet public service needs and could encompass a wide range of projects and interventions, such as local companies sponsoring natural stormwater infrastructure projects in exchange for advertising placed in or by the project. While public-private partnerships have the potential to expand the sources of capital available to water systems, at present public-private partnerships comprise only a very small portion of the funding for water infrastructure.

Stormwater Utilities

Communities have created dedicated stormwater utilities that charge a fee to residential, industrial, and commercial water customers. Stormwater utilities are similar to water, sewer, or fire districts in that they are stand-alone service units within a government that generate revenues through user fees for services related to the control and treatment of stormwater, separate from the general tax fund and used only for those services. Cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have a specific credit that goes toward natural stormwater infrastructure projects.

This parking lot at Chicago’s Maxwell Market used permeable pavers and an adjacent vegetated area to reduce stormwater runoff, flooding, and the urban heat island effect | Kathryn Rousseau

Just Add Water

All kinds of infrastructure, whether they are roads, buildings, or parks, manage water either intentionally or unintentionally. Thus all types of infrastructure funding have the potential to incorporate natural water management practices. Transportation projects, for example, now commonly include natural stormwater infrastructure installations, and many states have infrastructure banks, which also offer opportunities to invest in multiple benefit projects.

By integrating natural water infrastructure into other types of infrastructure projects such as buildings, roads, and parks, it is possible to scale up natural infrastructure to a degree not achievable using only dedicated water infrastructure funding.

Rain Garden in Atlanta, Georgia | Jeremy Diner

Conclusion: Making Natural Infrastructure a Priority ties.

The U.S. is at an inflection point. The infrastructure upon which our society is built has aged out. As we set about the massive task of replacing it, we must seize the opportunity to build smarter: to integrate our systems across bureaucratic silos to maintain clean water and other needs in a time of change and growth; to confront our legacy of privileging wealthy communities at the expense of communities of color and low-wealth neighborhoods.

The need for lower-cost, integrated solutions to meet water infrastructure demands of the 21st century is clear. By linking natural infrastructure solutions with traditional gray infrastructure, by engaging community voices and advancing an integrated water management, or One Water, approach, we can break down “silos” to create holistic, coordinated water systems that maximize economic, social, and environmental benefits in an equitable and sustainable manner.

Communities must embrace equitable water infrastructure to ensure that the voices of underserved communities are heard, their challenges and needs identified, and their concerns addressed in a manner that engages the community and improves quality of life.

Where our planning and decision-making tables are too small or exclusive, we must make them bigger and add more chairs. The water management sector must break out of the silos that constrain diverse and innovative solutions.

We must look outside traditional policy and funding mechanisms, at every level of government, for new models that can help close the gap between our infrastructure needs and the available funds, and explore ways to drive jobs and opportunities to disadvantaged communities and companies.

Across the country, we can see examples of how to do water infrastructure right: communities continuing in the enduring American tradition of innovating our way to solutions. The challenge before us is clear. The solutions are tangible. The moment has arrived to summon the will to advance them.

Learn more about equitable investment in natural infrastructure:

· Executive Summary

· Chapter 1: Naturally Stronger

· Chapter 2: Our Communities At Risk

· Chapter 3: A New Approach to Natural Infrastructure

· Chapter 4: Natural Infrastructure: An Economic Engine

· Chapter 5: Community Benefits of Integrated Infrastructure

· Chapter 6: Funding Natural Infrastructure

· Conclusion: Making Natural Infrastructure a Priority

· Acknowledgements and References

Naturally Stronger

Naturally Stronger illustrates the importance of including…

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Naturally Stronger

Naturally Stronger illustrates the importance of including natural infrastructure in water management planning which includes protecting, restoring and mimicking forests, green spaces and wetlands that provide essential services to both urban and rural communities.

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