Restoring U.S. Forests Can Help Solve Our Water Infrastructure Crisis

National forests and grasslands

From The Huffington Post (Bill Richardson):

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…

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.

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