While Washington waits for the details of the Trump administration’s promised trillion-dollar plan to fix American infrastructure, there’s a critical need to focus on the infrastructure that carries our water. One step we can take now to shore up our human-made water infrastructure is to restore the great forests that offer natural infrastructure support.
U.S. water infrastructure got a “D Grade” from American Society of Civil Engineers, and it could cost more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years to maintain, repair, and expand the systems we need for safe drinking water.
The good news is that we can cost-effectively preserve and restore the forests that provide much of the water we use, which means spending less on the pipes and aqueducts of so-called grey infrastructure. In the Western United States, 65 percent of public water supply comes from forests, which also help purify water of pollutants, control floods and regulate water flow.
But these forests are at increasing risk of catastrophic fires, which over the past decade have burned an area larger than North Dakota. Wildfires can flood drinking water systems with hazardous ash, smother aquatic habitats with soot and soil, and even destroy existing infrastructure like pipes and dams. In Colorado, recent fires have cost Denver Water upwards of $30 million in damaged infrastructure and dredging costs. In my home state of New Mexico, the Cerro Grande fire of 2000 cost an estimated $1 billion.
One way to curtail wildfires is to thin the forest to restore a natural, low-intensity fire pattern that promotes the health of the landscape. Besides cutting the costs of wildfires, forest restoration could create green jobs and revitalize rural economies.
Restoration of forests and landscapes is not limited to the rural areas. Chicago-based Fresh Coast Capital has harnessed forest restoration to help retain storm-water, working in seven Midwestern cities to plant urban forests that reduce the impacts of floods and improve the quality of water runoff.
Sounds simple enough, right? The problem is funding. As Western wildfires become more intense, conventional funding sources for environmental projects, such as public and philanthropic capital, are not sufficient. And there is no obvious alternative.
The United States Forest Service and other agencies have had to cobble together large portions of their budgets for firefighting, and lack funding to do restoration that could prevent future forest fires. That multiplies the actual cost of firefighting, since it means missing out on the benefits that restoration would provide. Until this financial challenge is solved, the American West is likely to continue to burn, jeopardizing water supply for millions.
Luckily, some novel solutions have emerged that could unlock forest restoration investment.
Some cities have passed municipal bonds to restore forests in their watersheds. Since 2009, the city of Santa Fe has invested more than $8 million in forest restoration of its source watershed. This program was made possible through a congressional earmark and financial support from the New Mexico Water Trust Board. Similarly, five cities in Colorado are restoring forests in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.
Researchers at Blue Forest Conservation and the World Resources Institute are pioneering what they call the Forest Resilience Bond, a financing mechanism for forest restoration that leverages private capital to achieve scale and meet the needs of downstream water suppliers, distributors and users. The team is piloting this mechanism in early 2018 in the U.S. West.
As these pilot programs attempt to redefine how U.S. forest restoration is funded, we should also ask about the federal government’s role. It is unclear if water infrastructure will be a focus of the Trump administration’s proposed infrastructure plan. But if Americans want sustainable, resilient and cost-effective infrastructure that offers multiple benefits to communities and the environment, the infrastructure discussion needs to start with forest restoration.
The problem of restoring water infrastructure is not only an American problem. Other regions of the world are facing extreme water stresses and have even less ability to cope with the risks. Recognizing the benefits of forest restoration in this area, the Global Restoration Council is spurring a movement to get governments to sign up to the Bonn Challenge to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. By adopting forest restoration as a measure in its approach to improving our water infrastructure, the U.S. can lead the way for the world by example.
So, while Americans debate what kind of infrastructure we want to sustain future generations, we should also consider how forest restoration can safeguard and even improve the performance of our infrastructure investments.
Bill Richardson is the former Governor of New Mexico (2003-2011), Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy (1998-2000) and a United Nations Ambassador (1997). During his tenure as Governor of New Mexico, Richardson funded the successful restoration of three rivers: the Santa Fe, the Gila, and the Rio Puerco. Richardson is a member of the Global Restoration Council, and has started The Richardson Center for Global Engagement and the Foundation to Preserve New Mexico Wildlife, the latter with filmmaker and conservationist Robert Redford.