Every two years Congress aims to pass a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which approves projects that steward and restore many of our nation’s waterways and wetlands, including the Everglades and the Great Lakes. This approval is a critical step to ensuring that projects are eligible for federal funding. Today the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment is discussing the development of WRDA.
A new WRDA is a perfect opportunity for Congress to advance natural infrastructure – an approach to accommodating traditional water infrastructure needs in a way that mimics nature and is more resilient in the face of the impacts of climate change. Audubon submitted a list of potential concepts for the upcoming WRDA with natural infrastructure as a central recommendation.
Natural infrastructure alternatives can include nature-based systems such as restoring sand dunes, wetlands, oyster reefs and coastal forests in place of traditional human-built projects like seawalls, jetties, levees, groins, bulkheads and riprap. This kind of “grey” infrastructure has traditionally been promoted as the best long-term, cost-effective approach to flood management. But natural infrastructure has been shown to provide significant, long-term and cost-competitive benefits for challenges such as flood reduction. Natural infrastructure is a win-win for birds and people.
Audubon’s Vice President for Water Conservation, Julie Hill-Gabriel, testified in July before the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment about the implementation of past Water Resources Development Acts (WRDA) and the projects and policies needed in the next WRDA. While the hearing had a wide-ranging focus on water issues across the U.S., the importance of natural infrastructure became a central theme. Numerous witnesses in addition to Hill-Gabriel and Members of Congress touted the benefits of mimicking nature’s resiliency to address new challenges brought on by climate change.
In July, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) noted the increasing number of instances where projects have sought to fight nature and “nature won,” going on to point out the necessity to dedicate greater consideration to natural and nature-based designs. In addition, R.D. James, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, acknowledged that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers often do not properly capture the benefits that nature provides when it selects project alternatives. He went on to express a desire to “take a real look” at how these benefits can be accounted for.
In 2018, Audubon released a Natural Infrastructure Report: How Natural Infrastructure Can Shape a Resilient Coast for Birds and People. This report demonstrated how federal investment in natural infrastructure will help increase preparedness of coastal communities and economies, while benefitting fish and wildlife, which also often provide a critical foundation for coastal economies. Natural infrastructure alternatives can also provide more resilient options for inland flood attenuation and water storage in places like the Colorado River basin.
It is exciting to see another opportunity for Congress to address this critical issue and Audubon looks forward to working with decision-makers on this issue. As a changing climate makes intense storms, extreme flooding and extreme drought more common, natural infrastructure must become a central tool for building resilient habitat and communities.