It is time for the U.S. to prioritize an infrastructure spending bill as a means to revitalize the economy and improve the physical assets in our cities. We’re not the only ones who think so, and assuming a bill comes to pass, we can only hope that Washington’s plan is comprehensive, equitable, and climate-conscious. But most of all, it needs to address the underlying deficiencies in one of our most valuable infrastructure assets: water.
A “climate-conscious” approach to infrastructure is a nice, buzzy talking point that pundits and think tanks use when they refer to making huge transitory investments in alternative energy sources that shift our economy away from fossil fuels. What they miss is that there are immediate investments we can make NOW to mitigate the shocks of a changing climate.
“Whack weather” is a term we use to describe sudden, unpredictable weather events that cause property and/or other damages. From 1990 to 2019, this type of weather, when adjusted for inflation, has caused $1.5 Trillion in damages in the U.S over that time period. Last year alone “whack weather” cost the U.S. $45 Billion. This combination of urbanization, larger rain events, and outdated, deteriorating water infrastructure is a recipe for disaster, and one that isn’t being addressed in any meaningful way.
Over half of the states in the U.S. are likely to experience damaging floods this Spring. This is a water infrastructure issue. But regardless of the threat, new investments in urban water systems remain low because water simply doesn’t have the sex appeal as say new roads and highways, or seaports and airports.
A good example of this is the combined sewer overflow crisis that our nation is facing. Many U.S. cities (722 to be exact) are failing to manage excessive stormwater runoff that results from large storms. When it rains, this water hits impermeable surfaces and runs off into the sanitary sewer system, overwhelming it. By design, when these systems are overwhelmed, they discharge untreated stormwater and raw sewage into the nearest receiving water body. This isn’t isolated. Overflows like this result in an estimated 850 billion gallons of wastewater and sewage ending up in clean waterways around the nation.
This can be remedied with paradigm shifting investments in Green Infrastructure. A development approach that uses Green Infrastructure is able to protect, restore, and help mimic the natural water cycle by allowing rain to absorb into the ground, right where it falls. Techniques can include rain gardens, permeable pavements, green roofs, and bioretention systems. All of these techniques can achieve the same thing - by capturing and managing rain right where it falls, they lessen the burden on downstream water infrastructure and treatment plants
Green infrastructure is coming of age. Once considered unscalable, innovation in permeable paving technology, along with new design and bioretention approaches are changing that for good. Green Infrastructure ought to be a priority in every city’s water infrastructure plan. It’s not only a cost effective approach today, but it can future-proof cities against the shocks of larger, more intense weather events that are inevitable.
The fact is, more than 56 million new users will be connected to centralized water systems over the next two decades. This will add a lot more demand and strain to our already overburdened water systems. As communities continue to grow and we add more roads and rooftops, it’s imperative we offset these impacts with Green Infrastructure. The good news is that the technology and solution toolkit has come of age. Now is the time to implement it.