Extreme weather is taking a greater toll on the United States than ever before.
For coastal communities in the U.S., flooding caused by sea level rise, hurricanes and heavy rainfall events is the new normal. Conversely, regions west of the Mississippi River are experiencing prolonged droughts and water supply shortages, punctuated by heavy deluges of precipitation.
Policymakers and planners can help to reduce risk and protect communities from the damaging impacts of this new normal by turning to “natural infrastructure” solutions.
What is natural infrastructure?
The term “natural infrastructure” refers to naturally occurring landscape features and/or nature-based solutions that promote, use, restore or emulate natural ecological processes.
Policymakers and planners can use natural infrastructure to lessen the impacts of extreme weather, such as drought or flooding, while providing other ecological and human benefits.
Natural Infrastructure can benefit diverse ecosystems:
- Coasts: Healthy natural features — such as mangrove forests, living shorelines, restored wetlands, reefs and barrier islands — can absorb the shock of storm surge and better protect communities from sea level rise.
- Rivers and floodplains: Restored wetlands and reconnected floodplains can slow and retain water to reduce flooding, while filtering pollutants and providing wildlife habitat.
- Aquifers: Aquifers, which contain over 95% of Earth’s freshwater, serve as a natural underground water storage solution. For areas prone to drought or climate variability, storing water in aquifers can build a more resilient water supply. Healthy aquifers also support flows to rivers and streams, helping to create important habitat for wildlife.
- Working lands: Two-stage ditches, groundwater recharge basins and buffer strips built near and within working lands can retain water, improve water quality and limit the impact of flooding.
Moving natural infrastructure forward
Policymakers and planners in state, local and federal government need to prioritize, fund and implement natural infrastructure.
Recently, Congress reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act with references to natural infrastructure and is considering several bills that advance these solutions.
Globally, organizations are collaborating to publish international guidelines on natural infrastructure to support the sustainability and resilience of our coasts, bays and estuaries.
Policymakers, landowners and other stakeholders can strengthen the resilience of our ecosystems and communities by implementing natural infrastructure before a disaster occurs.