Infrastructure Week 2019

Infrastructure Week 2019

By Kristiana Teige Witherill, Carrie Sanneman, and Sara O’Brien

 

It’s Infrastructure Week again! This week-long campaign to highlight the need to repair and modernize America’s roads, bridges, mass transit, and high-speed communications links, comes on the heels of an announcement that federal lawmakers are going to work on a bipartisan plan to invest $2 trillion in infrastructure.  

Trees along the McKenzie River are an important part of Eugene Water & Electric Board’s water treatment infrastructure

At Willamette Partnership, we want to take this opportunity to remind our lawmakers that infrastructure is not just concrete and steel. Many communities have embraced green infrastructure – think constructed bioswales and detention basins that capture stormwater – in their planning processes. And we want these communities to have access to an even larger suite of tools that help them achieve community, economic, and environmental goals: what we’ve come to call natural infrastructure.

Natural infrastructure is the strategic use of natural areas and working lands to achieve community benefits. It’s the streamside areas with trees and grasses that keep pollution out of rivers and reduce drinking water treatment costs. It’s treatment wetlands that filter nutrients and sediment while keeping rates affordable in rural communities. It’s the farms that sometimes flood, protecting downstream homes and highways.

And we’re not the only ones who are looking at Mother Nature to provide the benefits of built infrastructure. Earth Economics has worked for years to change the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) rules to allow infrastructure providers to treat natural infrastructure the same way as steel and concrete: as a capital asset. If state and local governments can capitalize their investment in conservation practices as infrastructure, it makes it easier to use bonding authority and other innovative public-private partnerships to meet their infrastructure needs. The persistence of Earth Economics and their partners, including Ed Harrington and WaterNow Alliance, is beginning to pay off: GASB’s 2018 Implementation Guide includes a clarification that green and distributed infrastructure can indeed be bond-financed using the Regulated Operations approach in GASB 62.

One of the most exciting opportunities to invest infrastructure dollars in restoration and conservation practices is through ag-municipal partnerships. Municipalities are teaming up with partners throughout the watersheds they serve to invest water treatment infrastructure dollars in conservation on farms that reduce pollutants in our waterways by bringing new sources of funding, building a supportive peer community, and saving money. The projects that result from these partnerships simultaneously improve water quality, provide additional recreational access, improve air quality, reduce energy use, and reduce rates to attract new business.

We’d like to see the forthcoming infrastructure plan not only support but incentivize these kinds of innovative projects and partnerships. Farmers and cities working together can achieve water quality outcomes and multiple community benefits together that neither can achieve alone.

Kristiana Teige Witherill
Kristiana Teige Witherill is Willamette Partnership’s Clean Water Project Manager and lead on strategy development and facilitation for the National Network on Water Quality Trading. Prior to joining the Partnership, Kristiana was deputy director of Carpe Diem West, a nonprofit network of water resource and land managers pioneering innovative source water protection programs across the American West. Her work centered on building the value of the network, communications, and fundraising. Drawing on her experience at a water and wastewater utility, Kristiana has felt first-hand the challenges faced by the utility sector and works to find solutions to those challenges that benefit both people and the environment. She holds a Master of Environmental Science with a water resources management focus from the Bren School at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a BA in economics from Wellesley College.