Recognising the value of natural infrastructure

Posted on December 28, 2013

As human populations and climate change place increasing pressures on wetlands, watercourses, aquifers and floodplains, the typical response of planners is to focus on built infrastructure , such as dams to store water and embankments to mitigate floods.  Much less attention has been given to the need to invest in natural infrastructure to protect critical ecosystem services.  For example, the services provided by vegetation in stabilising soils and minimising erosion are threatened by plant die-offs during drought and fires, and by the toppling of trees by storms.  A failure to properly value such services is likely to incur significant economic costs in the medium-to-long term.  Recent work carried out in the headwaters of the Arkansas River in Colorado, U.S.A. provides an example of the way in which engineered and natural infrastructure solutions can be integrated.  The Arkansas River supplies a number of crucial ecosystem goods and services, including wildlife and fishery habitat, high quality water, flood control and recreation.  However, over the last few decades the river and its catchment have been affected by increasing climatic variability, with significant droughts, loss of vegetative cover, flash flooding and higher rates of erosion and sedimentation.  A collaborative restoration project coordinated by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife combines built infrastructure such as sediment basins, concrete pans, bridges and culverts, with natural infrastructure solutions in the form of bio-stabilization and plantings of native vegetation. 

Reference:  Wilson, M.A., & Browning, C.J.  2012.  Investing in natural infrastructure: restoring watershed resilience and capacity in the face of a changing climate.  Ecological Restoration 30 (2), 96-98.