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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Tag Archive: natural infrastructure

  1. Expect the Unexpected: SF Baylands and Climate Change – Point Blue post for Resilient by Design

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    Expecting the unexpected (originally posted for the Bay Area: Resilient By Design)

    2015-03-04 RMApano.jpgPoint Blue photos

    Trying to predict the future of our baylands could seem foolhardy given uncertainty in climate change, ecological “tipping points,” and how people prepare for these changes. Despite this, the region’s shoreline will be transformed in response to climate change and a growing human population. As we plan for the future, we must consider how to manage this transformation for people and wildlife, minimizing negative impacts and maximizing benefits.

    Securing nature’s benefits for people and wildlife

    Bay Area residents deeply value the baylands for providing healthy bird and fish habitat, improved water quality, reduced flooding, and world-class recreational opportunities. Our community’s commitment has been demonstrated by the more than  $500 million invested in wetland conservation and restoration since 1985 (as tracked by the SF Bay Joint Venture). This dedication was on full display when a supermajority of voters recently opted to tax themselves for more Baylands restoration in the face of accelerating climate change.

    PIX-CR-BN 175.jpg

    Looking forward, we need to ensure that:

    • our investments in bayland conservation are resilient to rising seas and increasingly intense storm events;
    • human assets such as roads, buildings and bridges, are protected, or appropriately relocated or redesigned;
    • underserved communities are actively engaged; and,
    • these vital adaptation endeavors entail the least cost.

    Prepare for extremes for greatest resilience

    We must also recognize that ecological change will be continuous, with sudden spurts of significant transformation.  Studies of past geologic eras, for example, show that ecosystems shifted dramatically in relatively short periods of time.  Today, we are already experiencing ecosystem transformations on a human time scale in Alaska and other parts of Earth’s polar regions where temperatures have warmed twice as fast as in the Bay Area.

    In addition, rising seas, storm events (e.g., “Superstorm” Harvey), drought and other climate change impacts continue to exceed what the science projected just a few years ago.

    Thus, the most resilient adaptation solutions will be those that are flexible and sensitive to a range of future scenarios, including extreme events at the highest end of what we know to be plausible today.

    The US Navy, for example, is now investing in strategies to address the more extreme scenarios.  According to a Harvard Business Review assessment, the Navy is raising coastal infrastructure and “improving its ability to recover rapidly when damage occurs.”  They are requiring “planners to provide additional justification when a new building is to be situated within two meters [6.6 feet] of sea-level-rise forecasts.” And, “buildings that pass this new hurdle must incorporate flood barriers and backup systems to withstand rising sea levels and storm surges.” While this “bets” approach may cost more initially, it will be essential to avoiding catastrophic outcomes from extreme and difficult to predict events.

    Highway 37: a multi-benefit, long-term approach

    “the most resilient adaptation solutions will be those that are flexible and sensitive to a range of future scenarios”

    Future planning for the Bay Area would benefit from applying the Navy’s approach.  For example, a recent UC Davis analysis of adaptation alternatives for the Highway 37 corridor, stretching from Novato to Vallejo, found that a levee embankment (making the road higher and wider to prevent flooding) would cost less than one third of a raised causeway. Given the challenges with funding transportation infrastructure improvements, it is understandable that planners may desire this alternative.

    However, the embankment would have the greatest negative ecological impacts of any of the alternatives considered.  It might constrain other future restoration alternatives in San Pablo Baylands, and will not be resilient to the high end scenarios of sea level rise and storm surge events forecasted by scientists today.  Caltrans directed UC Davis to only evaluate the costs of construction needed to prevent overtopping from three feet of sea level rise (plus a 100-year storm surge and three feet of wave run-up). This is now considered low based on the most recent science report from the state and other new studies.

    Based on these higher sea level rise projections, it is likely that the costs for the levee embankment alternative could increase substantially while the cost of the raised causeway alternatives could remain close to the same. The raised causeway options – or a bridge that would avoid the baylands entirely- would also re-establish hydrological connectivity between the baylands north of Highway 37 and the bay, reintroducing physical processes that facilitate natural adaptation to sea level rise and provide other benefits to people and wildlife.

    We urge planners, policy makers and designers, as they help the Bay Area become more resilient and responsive to continuous climate change, increasingly extreme events and unexpected transformations, to embrace Oscar Wilde’s insightful words, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect!”

  2. Nature-based Solutions to address global societal challenges- IUCN 2016

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    Cohen-Shacham, E., Walters, G., Janzen, C. and Maginnis, S. (eds.) (2016). Nature-based Solutions to address global societal challenges. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. xiii + 97pp. ISBN: 978-2-8317-1812-5 DOI:

    Defining Nature-based Solutions

    What are Nature-based Solutions?

    Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are defined by IUCN as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”.

    Overarching goal of Nature-based Solutions

    NbS are intended to support the achievement of society’s development goals and safeguard human well-being in ways that reflect cultural and societal values and enhance the resilience of ecosystems, their capacity for renewal and the provision of services. NbS are designed to address major societal challenges, such as food security, climate change, water security, human health, disaster risk, social and economic development.

    Nature-based Solutions principles

    A list of preliminary principles was developed for NbS. To define that list, several existing frameworks were analysed (e.g. Ecosystem Approach and its principles, Ecosystem Services approach, the original list of principles for NbS in the 2013-2016 IUCN Programme….[see list here]

    Nature-based Solutions as an umbrella concept for ecosystem-related approaches

    In framing NbS and considering its applications, it is useful to think of it as an umbrella concept that covers a whole range of ecosystem-related approaches all of which address societal challenges. These approaches can be placed into five main categories, as shown in the following table.

    Category of NbS Approaches Examples
    Ecosystem restoration approaches
    • Ecological restoration
    • Ecological Engineering
    • Forest landscape restoration
    Issue-specific ecosystem-related approaches
    • Ecosystem-based adaptation
    • Ecosystem-based mitigation
    • Climate adaptation services
    • Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction
    Infrastructure-related approaches
    • Natural infrastructure
    • Green infrastructure
    Ecosystem-based management approaches
    • Integrated coastal zone management
    • Integrated water resources management
    Ecosystem protection approaches
    • Area-based conservation approaches, including protected area management
  3. Natural Defenses in Action- NWF Report 2016

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    Small-Lorenz, et al. 2016. Natural Defenses in Action: Harnessing Nature to Protect our Communities. Washington, DC, National Wildlife Federation

    Natural Defenses in Action highlights the important role that natural and nature-based approaches can play in reducing the mounting risks to our communities from weather and climate-related natural hazards. The report highlights how properly managed ecosystems and well-designed policies can help reduce disaster risk in ways that are good for both people and nature. Natural Defenses in Action profiles a dozen case studies that highlight best-in-class examples of how natural defenses are being put to use to avoid or reduce risks from flooding, coastal storms, erosion, and wildfire. It illustrates that harnessing nature to protect people and property is not just a good idea—it already is being done across the country!

    Download the whole report here.

  4. Nature-Based Solutions for a Healthy Future: Presentation to Youth Climate Change Summit

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    Students from Marin High Schools Meet To Change Their Future

    April 29, 2017

    I was honored to be invited as a keynote speaker and inspired by these amazing high school students.  They gave me hope for our future!  Many thanks to each of the student leaders and to Patti Vance for organizing this first annual summit.

    Here is a link to a pdf of my presentation: Cohen Marin Youth Climate Change Summit Apr 29 2017 FINv2.


  5. Natural infrastructure working in CA– setback levees perform better than traditional

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    After the Storms: A fresh look at the work of setback levees

    By Heather Hacking, Chico Enterprise-Record Posted:

    Marysville >> Rivers were swift and wide this winter with heavy storms adding up to the wettest winter in 122 years….The Marysville area has been a historically flood-prone area, but this year a billion dollars worth of setback levees did the job they were designed to do.

    John Carlon is a big fan of setback levees. Rather than placing river barriers close to the river channel, setback levees are built farther away. When there’s more water, the flow spreads. Water slows and things can grow.….

    When he visited the Feather River after recent storms, many of the plants and trees he had planted were underwater, just as planned….

  6. ‘Nature-based solutions’ is the latest green jargon that means more than you might think

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    It may sound vague, but the term represents real and vital concepts.

    11 January 2017 Nature Editorial

    The latest attempt to brand green practices is better than it sounds….Nature-based solutions may sound artificial and unusable at first, but then so, probably, did the now-widespread, accepted and useful ‘sustainable development’ and even ‘biodiversity’ when they were first written and spoken aloud — and both terms emerged into policy debate more recently than you might expect.

    Still, if NBS seems poorly defined and vague, that is because it currently is — and this is where scientists come in. As specialists in conservation and sustainability point out in the journal Science of the Total Environment (C. Nesshöver et al. Sci. Tot. Environ. 579, 1215–1227; 2017), NBS will require the research community, its supporters and funders to answer a series of questions. The answers will entail identifying the specific problems for which a nature-based solution is needed, and monitoring the outcomes. Words, after all, can only take us so far.

    Nature 541, 133–134 (12 January 2017) doi:10.1038/541133b

  7. Include nature in infrastructure to make America great

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    …if we proceed with traditional infrastructure that relies only on bricks and mortar, we will be missing a critical opportunity. ….The best way to make sure infrastructure investments are cost effective, valuable, and enduring is to use a smart mix of built and natural components. This form of engineering combines natural processes with human technologies and uses organisms and ecological processes to produce goods and services and process waste.

    Examples of infrastructure infused with nature include wetlands that treat wastewater and are formed into public parks and green roofs, and urban forests that moderate the excess heat of cities and reduce stormwater run-off. This kind of infrastructure is missing in many of our communities and would improve air quality, water quality and general quality of life….

    Today we face an opportunity for a conservative New Deal, one that boosts the economy and wisely includes nature in new infrastructure. Let’s infuse engineering with nature into the new national infrastructure initiative. Let’s fit construction to the local environment, make structures more functional and resilient, and create the maximum value for society with each project. Let’s make America great by building nature into national infrastructure.

    Robert Gardner, History of Science, Technology and Medicine and Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota and Jessica Hellmann, Director, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota
  8. Intact ecosystems provide best defence against climate change

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    January 28, 2016  Wildlife Conservation Society

    Worldwide responses to climate change could leave people worse off in the future according to a recent study conducted by CSIRO, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Queensland. The paper, “Intact ecosystems provide the best defense against climate change,” published in Nature Climate Change, discusses how certain adaptation strategies may have a negative impact on nature which in turn will impact people in the long-term.

    “In response to climate change, many local communities around the world are rapidly adjusting their livelihood practices to cope with climate change, sometimes with catastrophic implications for nature,” according to CSIRO’s principal research scientist Dr. Tara Martin…

    …The paper states that intact native forests have been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of floods, while coral reefs can reduce wave energy by an average of 97 per cent, providing a more cost-effective defense from storm surges than engineered structures.

    Likewise, coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and tidal marshes are proving to be a more cost-effective and ecologically sound alternative to buffering storms than conventional coastal engineering solutions….

    Tara G. Martin, James E. M. Watson. Intact ecosystems provide best defence against climate change. Nature Climate Change, 2016; 6 (2): 122 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2918

  9. New California Law Recognizes Meadows, Streams As “Green Infrastructure”, Eligible For Public Works Funding

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    As degraded watersheds drag California into its sixth year of drought, a new law makes forests, farms, and fields eligible for infrastructure funding – and the state is hardly alone, according to new research by Ecosystem Marketplace, which shows a dramatic surge in payments for watershed services across the United States and around the world.

    By Kelli Barrett October 2016 Ecosystem Marketplace

    The US state of California has spent the better part of the last hundred years cobbling together a massive network of pipes, pumps, and aqueducts that today suck water from remote rivers in angry parts of distant states up over high mountains down through dry valleys and into the Southern part of the state. It’s a technological and engineering wonder – one the Romans would envy – but it’s only as good as the forests and catchments that mop up that water and filter it for human consumption, and those ecosystems are increasingly under pressure.

    So, with the state entering its sixth year of drought, Governor Jerry Brown last month signed a landmark law, Assembly Bill 2480, declaring that “source watersheds are recognized and defined as integral components of California’s water infrastructure.” In so doing, he made it possible to funnel billions of dollars in infrastructure finance towards the restoration of forests and the maintenance of meadows, streams and rivers – echoing a similar move by Peru last year and accelerating a decades-old trend towards the use of “natural infrastructure” to manage water supplies.

    Indeed, preliminary findings from Ecosystem Marketplace’s State of Watershed Investments 2016 report, slated for release in early 2017, identify at least 95 initiatives in the United States funneling at least $3.8 billion into watershed conservation, and the global figures are multiples of that. Meanwhile, a recent mapping initiative launched this month shows dramatic increases in all payments for ecosystem services….

  10. Detroit banks on green infrastructure to rescue city from heavy rains

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    1 September 2016 by Kurt Kuban

    Detroit has a water problem. Or, more correctly, it has a stormwater problem. Every time it rains, Detroit officials cross their fingers in hopes the city’s antiquated sewer system can handle the volume of stormwater that gets flushed into thousands of drains in parking lots and along city streets. In many cases, those drains are connected to sewer pipes that also carry sewage to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. When the system is overwhelmed with stormwater, which is happening with more frequency, the combined sewers end up discharging untreated sewage directly into local streams and rivers.

    And during heavy rains, as residents have suffered through on at least three occasions this summer, basements also flood because they are hooked up to the same drains. These combined sewer overflows discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes each year, are the prime source of pollution in the Rouge River and are one of the main factors in the algae blooms impacting Lake Erie.

    To alleviate the problem, you might say the city is turning to a natural ally. Rather than build more and bigger (and more expensive) pipes to capture the stormwater, the city is looking to nature to help out.
    Under the direction of Mayor Mike Duggan’s office, the city is focusing on green infrastructure projects, including the elimination of impervious ground surfaces that don’t allow water to soak through, and constructing bioswales (similar to large vegetated ditches), wetlands, rain gardens and other methods that allow rain and snowmelt to more naturally filter into the ground, rather than running off into city sewers.

    ….Instead of $1.2 billion for more pipes, the water department will spend approximately $50 million on green infrastructure projects in the Upper Rouge sewershed area, on the city’s far west side, where CSOs have plagued the Rouge River for years. Mobley said the city has until 2029 to complete the projects…..In fiscal year 2016, the city will spend $6.6 million on green infrastructure projects. Several have been completed, including the construction of four bioretention gardens on vacant lots in the Cody Rouge neighborhood, which was a collaborative effort with the University of Michigan. Stormwater is directed into these vegetated garden areas where it will percolate naturally into the ground. In essence, they act as natural wetlands. City officials say each of the gardens was designed to reduce stormwater runoff into local sewers by 300,000 gallons annually….