April 3, 2013

Putting Nature Back to Work

On March 19, The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its new report card on the condition of America's infrastructure. Overall, our infrastructure in 16 categories ranging from bridges to water systems earned only a D+. ASCE estimates the United States needs to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring America's infrastructure up to good repair.

Among these systems are several that are critical to reducing the loss of life and property from the growing impacts of global climate change. Dams were graded D; levees earned only a D-; waste water and storm water control systems also were given a D. Drinking water and energy infrastructure — both vulnerable to extreme weather events — received a D and D+ respectively.
The bad news is that the cost of bringing these engineered systems up to par comes at a time when government budgets at all levels are strained, if not in crisis. The good news is that some of the services we receive from engineered systems can be provided instead by natural systems if we restore and protect them.

Ecosystems perform a wide variety of important services for free. Trees provide shade, purify air and water, and store carbon. Wetlands regulate flooding. Coastal marshes buffer communities from storm surges. Forests and soils store carbon as well as water. Many of these ecosystems have been degraded or destroyed by human development. Now, communities need to put nature back to work.

Communities are starting to ask the question -  "Is what you are trying to do, in the way you are trying to do it, going to diminish life or is it going to embrace, protect and restore life?" We call this a living system approach.

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