06.19.17 | By Cyrus Philbrick

Our nation's water infrastructure needs work. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 report, Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future, the U.S. needs to invest $82 billion per year in water infrastructure to meet projected needs. Though the need is clear, the question remains - what kind of investments should we make?

A recent American Rivers report, Naturally Stronger, written in collaboration with Earth Economics, makes a compelling case for investing in green infrastructure, or infrastructure that supports natural biological systems. Green infrastructure (also called natural infrastructure) both improves economies and delivers diverse social benefits.

The report’s introduction aptly lays out both the risks to our water supply and the case for a new, green infrastructure-based system:

"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 These threats are a result of our nation’s outdated water infrastructure and water management strategies, and their impacts fall disproportionately on low-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color that are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."

Green infrastructure is a proven solution for improved water management, a case made clear throughout the report by research and case studies provided by Earth Economics. Earth Economics staff - Rowan Schmidt, Corrine Armistead, and Tania Briceno - dug up national and regional studies that reveal the profoundly positive impact that investments in green infrastructure can have on community economies and health. For example, one EPA study even found that, on average, every dollar spent on source water protection through green infrastructure via natural water filtration saves $27 in future contamination cleanup costs.  

Our staff also helped identify city models of wise investment in green infrastructure. For example, Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters plan is investing $1.3 billion over 25 years in permeable pathways, raingardens, and cisterns that are integrated into the city's public streets, structures, and landscapes. According to a study by Stratus Consulting, the city's natural approach will deliver far greater long-term value (about $3 billion) than would investment in a traditional gray water approach of installing pipes and treatment facilities (about $138 million). In addition to being more cost-effective, the natural approach will also deliver a host of other benefits – such as more green space, improved air quality, and new job opportunities. 

The evidence in the Naturally Stronger report is a boon for proponents of green infrastructure. "This report shows that green infrastructure is a great investment," said Tania Briceno, Earth Economics Program Director. "It is cost-effective in so many ways. It pays off in both the short and long term. It creates jobs. It makes cities more resilient, more resistant to sewage failures and shocks like floods. And it can also make communities more equitable places to live." 

Program Director Rowan Schmidt sees a valuable role for Earth Economics in assessing the tradeoffs between green and gray infrastructure. "By striking the right balance between gray and green infrastructure, we can help determine how to provide public services like clean water and waste-treatment in equitable ways that save tax payer dollars," Schmidt said. Grounding decisions in research will help planners make the best choices for water infrastructure now and into the future.


Banner Photo Credit: Aaron Volkening via Flickr