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Leveraging nature to solve increasing water industry challenges

Securing a clean water supply is an ever-increasing concern in the U.S. With aging insfrastructure, growing demand and extreme weather events, there is no shortage of challenges. WWD Managing Editor Elisabeth Lisican recently spoke with Todd Gartner, a senior associate for the World Resources Institute’s Food, Forests & Water Program, about tackling these issues by investing in nature.

Elisabeth Lisican: When it comes to securing clean water, what does it mean to invest in nature?

Todd Gartner: “Natural infrastructure” like forests and wetlands provide proven benefits when it comes to water security. Forests, for example, have sturdy, long-lived roots that help to anchor soil against erosion, and multiple layers of vegetation and a thick litter layer that reduce falling rain’s erosive force. Forests also promote infiltration of water into the soil, minimizing flooding and allowing for nutrient uptake by vegetation and soil microbes. Forests, in short, purify the water downstream on which communities rely. 

By strategically securing networks of forests and other ecosystems, water utilities and businesses can ensure these essential services. These efforts often involve conserving remaining forests with easements or land acquisitions. In many watersheds, forests and wetlands have been degraded and must be restored. Some innovative communities are compensating upstream rural landowners to manage their land in part to provide clean water and flood control.

Lisican: How can natural infrastructure be integrated into traditional water management strategies?

Gartner: The water management industry is very good at engineering solutions to growing water challenges—be it advanced filtration plants to clean degraded source water or reservoirs to protect communities from drought and flood. Yet, as managing water becomes increasingly complex and costly, communities must rely on all the tools in their arsenals. Maintaining networks of upstream ecosystems can enhance services and reduce the costs of providing clean water. Even as utilities and businesses maintain key engineered facilities to manage water—such as treatment plants—a growing number of innovators are finding that natural infrastructure is a solid and overdue investment. An integrated portfolio of both natural and built infrastructure can enhance water security and stabilize rising costs.

Lisican: Please offer some examples of utilities that have put this concept into practice.

Gartner: The primary drinking water reservoir for Raleigh, N.C., was added to the Clean Water Act 303(d) list of impaired waters in 2008. In the same year, the region suffered from a drought resulting in water use restrictions and fears of emergency measures. Two years later, the area suffered flooding that closed roads and schools, and forced evacuations. These challenges are in part due to increasing development pressures in the watershed and loss of forest, floodplains, and wetlands. The municipal water utilities in Raleigh and nearby Durham maintain sophisticated water storage and treatment capabilities. These cities also are making smart investments to protect priority upstream lands. Raleigh has established a permanent watershed protection fee (one penny per 100 gal). This small increase to water bills provides almost $2 million per year for strategic land conservation.

The water utilities on the Northern Front Range of Colorado have intricate systems of reservoirs and treatment facilities to provide high-quality drinking water. But in the face of catastrophic wildfires upstream, natural infrastructure options are becoming critical. Wildfires in these utilities’ forested headwaters can cause massive sedimentation, which can clog water intakes, reduce reservoir storage capacity and increase treatment costs. While robust built infrastructure is essential for managing these risks, Front Range utilities stand to save hundreds of millions by investing in measures like prescribed burning and mechanical thinning that reduce the occurrence and severity of wildfires.  

Todd Gartner is a senior associate for the World Resources Institute’s Food, Forests & Water Program. Gartner can be reached at tgartner@wri.org or 410.790.4070.

Elisabeth Lisican is managing editor of Water & Wastes Digest. Lisican can be reached at elisican@sgcmail.com or 847.391.1012.

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