A critical moment to harness green infrastructure for clean water

The time Is ripe

In the United States, most gray infrastructure was built 40-50 years ago with large federal grants and few provisions for maintenance. This aging infrastructure needs significant investment to keep pace with population growth and to repair wear and tear.

Yet funds for investment in water infrastructure are drying up in an era of fiscal austerity. Naturally, water utilities, reservoir managers and storm water managers are seeking lower-cost solutions to meet water demands of the 21st century.

That’s where green infrastructure can play a significant role.

Success stories

Since the landmark green infrastructure investment in New York City’s Catskill-Delaware watershed in the late 1990s, there have been several similar breakthroughs across the United States. These cases illustrate how green infrastructure can secure clean water and other services at a lower cost and with greater benefits than traditional gray infrastructure. A few examples include:

  • Denver, Colo. is investing in thinning and other fire risk management measures in its forested watersheds. Wildfires in Denver’s headwaters can cause massive sedimentation, which can clog the utility’s water intakes, reduce reservoir storage capacity and increase treatment costs. Managing for fire risk also improves watershed function and reduces risk to local homes, wildlife and fisheries.
  • Medford, Ore. is saving an estimated $12 million by investing in riparian forest restoration to shade streams instead of installing mechanical chillers to meet its Clean Water Act obligations related to stream temperature. Riparian forest also provides benefits for habitat, carbon sequestration and water quality.
  • Portland, Ore. is saving an estimated $200 million by prohibiting logging in most of its Bull Run watershed. The city is closing logging roads and removing culverts and other infrastructure in order to maintain downstream water quality and secure ancillary benefits for wildlife. This investment has helped Portland to secure clean water and thereby qualify for a filtration avoidance waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saving the utility the cost of a new filtration plant.

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