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Funneling Funding in to Resilience

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On Friday, May 16th, I was in Washington, D.C., during a torrential downpour. Flash flood warnings stretched from Virginia, across Washington and out to Maryland. Undoubtedly, thousands of basements were flooded and roads were closed when water rushed out of streams and into places where water isn't supposed to go.

While I am never in favor of flooded basements, the storm actually did me a favor by delivering a real life illustration for the Infrastructure Week talk I was giving at the Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution. I was invited to speak about the importance of building resilient infrastructure so cities don't experience system-wide failures every time a large storm rolls through.

When a water system works, rainfall runs into sewers and, like a funnel, is carried off of roads and to treatment plans, often ending up in larger bodies of water like rivers or lakes. But when a system fails, the funnel backs up and roads turn into rivers and lakes. Many cities in America have water systems that are over a century old and are not equipped to handle modern needs or stresses.

Cities that are looking to the future are beginning to realize they can't have water systems that just work like funnels. Instead, cities need their surfaces to work like a sponge, absorbing water and holding it -- not rushing through 100-year-old pipes. Cities need ways to group projects together, such as porous pavement for roads, street trees and rain gardens, to build a new, greener water systems instead of the old-fashioned hard, grey water systems that are failing to protect communities.

The RE.invest Initiative is partnering with eight cities across the country. These geographically diverse communities including Milwaukee, El Paso, Hoboken and Honolulu are very different, but they all face similar challenges in building a more resilient infrastructure. We work with these cities by bringing in SWAT teams of finance, engineering and legal experts that help cities take their dream list of infrastructure projects and package them into portfolios of projects that private sector financial institutions can invest in.

One of our RE.invest partner cities, Miami Beach, is frequently profiled when the media talks about resilience issues. Miami Beach has a flooding problem -- not just on rainy days, but on perfectly sunny days. On a day with no precipitation, Miami Beach streets can be flooded with up two feet of standing water during high tide because the city's seawalls are faltering and ocean water pushes up through sewer systems. Folks in the constantly flooding areas are coping, but they know things need to change.

Another partner city in the RE.invest Initiative, Hoboken, became a cautionary tale for the rest of the country during Super storm Sandy. Hoboken is only one mile by one mile, and it is shaped like a bowl. During the storm, parts of the city were flooded with up to 14 feet of water. In response, Hoboken is taking the long-term view on rebuilding, and looking for ways to be more resilient for future severe storms. As part of our partnership, we're helping them identify ways to build cisterns and underground parking garages that can double essentially as bathtubs for overflow water runoff during big storms.

We also want to help Hoboken and other cities create open spaces where cutting edge resilience technologies can be demonstrated; technologies that show how water flows through a sewer system or how to recycle wastewater into an energy source. What is really going to make cities more resilient is not just thinking about the technologies and investments we need right now, but thinking about the technologies we'll need 10, 15, and 100 years from now.

Key to the success of our work is finding multiple revenue streams to finance these dream projects. It is obvious that what is stopping cities from building more resilient infrastructure is not a lack of awareness -- cities know what they need -- and it isn't even a lack of money. The private sector has a lot of capital that would be perfect to invest in an upgraded utility or public sector infrastructure project with reliable returns. What doesn't exist is the ability to connect the dots between those public needs and private investments. Cities are used to structuring needs and projects based on city departments -- silos of Water or Transportation Departments -- and those projects need to be aggregated together in a way that makes sense for investors instead. At the RE.invest initiative, we're helping connect those dots so cities can build a more resilient future.

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