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Drone image of a barrier island that was impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Enlisting Nature to Help Confront Climate Change

August 17, 2021
Natural infrastructure projects hold enormous potential to address the impacts of our climate crisis

Every day, the devastating impacts of climate change become more apparent and inescapable.

From extreme flooding to extreme drought, Americans are increasingly experiencing these threats through one of life’s basic necessities – water.

To confront these challenges, we need to advance sustainable, science-based solutions that protect not only the environment, but front-line communities and industries most at risk. We can start by working with nature, not against it.

In places like the Louisiana coast and the Mississippi River basin, natural infrastructure projects hold enormous potential to address the worst impacts of climate change.

I spoke with Natalie Snider, associate vice president of coasts and watersheds with the Environmental Defense Fund, about the importance of enlisting nature as a partner to confront climate change.

Let’s start by answering a basic question - what is natural infrastructure?

Natalie: Natural infrastructure is best described as the parts of our natural landscape that provide services to society. In our coastal systems, for example, we have barrier shorelines and barrier islands that provide protection from sea-level rise and storms, while also providing those key environmental functions that support habitat. In our river systems, we have swamps and floodplains that collect storm waters and floodwaters and keep them out of our homes, while also improving water quality and providing essential fishing and wildlife habitat. So when we think about how natural infrastructure projects work, we’re partnering with nature on solutions to provide protection and ecosystem benefits for safe and resilient environments and communities.

How does natural infrastructure protect against the impact of climate change?

Natalie: Floodplain management and coastal ecosystems have been known for a long time to provide benefits, but they have taken on new importance in the face of climate change and sea-level rise. These natural landscapes can provide more sustainable, cost-effective protection for communities than building seawalls, or bulkheads, or levees while delivering a number of other benefits including wildlife habitat, water quality improvement, and job creation and economic growth. So we’re increasingly looking to natural infrastructure as a solution to the increasing flood challenges that we're facing in these systems.

How does natural infrastructure help on the Louisiana coast, which is facing incredible risk from rising sea levels and more powerful storms?

Natalie: There are a wide variety of ways that natural infrastructure can help, like restoring barrier islands, barrier shorelines and dunes, as a first line of defense. But then you also have marshes, and wetlands and oyster reefs. Their natural landscape provides multiple lines of defense to protect communities from rising seas and more intense hurricanes. In the Gulf, we’re actively working with decision-makers to ensure that they're funding natural infrastructure projects, building them, and getting them off the ground.

An aerial view of coastal Louisiana.

Another way of describing natural infrastructure is "working with nature" to bring it back into balance.

Natalie: Nature has a balance to its systems. Over the years, we have seen overdevelopment in floodplains, on beaches and in other high-risk vulnerable areas. There was a lack of true understanding of how vulnerable these places were – and how much more vulnerable they were becoming. More and more of our built infrastructure is becoming exposed to these risks that they didn't historically face. But if we allow nature to work with us and use these natural areas to either protect us from storms or to hold floodwaters out of our homes, we can continue to restore a lot of that balance.

Can you talk about how big sediment diversion projects planned on the Mississippi River can protect our coast from rising sea levels and storms?

Natalie: These projects will reconnect the river to coastal wetlands and rebuild land, using natural processes and natural functions. We have understood for a long time how straight-jacketing the Mississippi River went against Mother Nature and impacted the wetlands of coastal Louisiana. The land that people live on in Louisiana, in New Orleans, and across the coast, was built by the Mississippi River. We have a real opportunity to build a protective landscape around Louisiana’s communities. We’re already seeing places on Louisiana’s coast gaining land because of reconnection to the river. Sediment diversions will mimic that natural process on a much larger scale to build and maintain wetlands that can provide a natural buffer, while protecting the bounty of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems over the long term, and also create jobs and economic investments in areas that need them.

How does natural infrastructure protect against flooding upstream on rivers like the Mississippi, for example?

Natalie: By building out landscapes like grassy wetlands, reforesting hardwood bottomland, and restoring floodplains and smaller meanders on streams and tributaries, we can restore the natural functions of the river. These landscapes also help hold back floodwaters and filter out agricultural pollution, improving water quality downstream. There are multiple benefits to natural infrastructure. It’s flood protection. It's water quality. It's habitat for fish and wildlife species. It's carbon sequestration. It’s jobs. It’s also aesthetically pleasing and can provide new recreational opportunities.

What urgency is there for natural infrastructure projects?

Natalie: You can see the urgency by watching the news and seeing the impact climate change is having with record floods in so many parts of the world. The good news is that natural infrastructure can be implemented in a much quicker timeframe than gray structure. And it's sustainable over a longer period of time. If we rely on massive gray infrastructure projects, people are going to be waiting a long time to see the benefits. On the other hand, we can start implementing some shoreline features, restoring oyster reefs, building up dunes. We can do that now. We know how to engineer it. We know how to get it done. There are solutions that don’t cost billions of dollars but deliver significant benefits to communities that desperately need them.

The graphic below shows how natural infrastructure works to reduce flooding:

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