WONK WEDNESDAY: Investing in Natural Infrastructure and Community Resilience
Healthy ecosystems are a key component in building resilient communities that can adapt to the impacts of climate change. Coastal ecosystems and healthy dunes, wetlands, and forests shield people and property from sea-level rise and severe storms and flooding and provide benefits for wildlife and water quality.
The following post is authored by Karsyn Kendrick, BlueGreen Alliance Associate Policy Advisor.
Investing in infrastructure isn’t just about repairing roads and bridges, it should also focus on protecting and restoring ecosystems and natural defenses. Healthy ecosystems are a key component in building resilient communities that can adapt to the impacts of climate change. Coastal ecosystems and healthy dunes, wetlands, and forests shield people and property from sea-level rise and severe storms and flooding and provide benefits for wildlife and water quality.
WHAT IS NATURAL INFRASTRUCTURE?
Natural infrastructure refers to naturally occurring areas or systems that are intentionally managed to provide multiple benefits for humans and the environment. Natural infrastructure provides services like water storage and filtration, fisheries production, and carbon sequestration—the capture and storage of carbon dioxide—worth an estimated at $125 trillion per year globally—significantly more than the annual output of the global economy. Every year, our coastal wetlands provide an estimated $23.2 billion in storm protection, and even 2.5 acres of restored or protected oyster reefs can provide up to $99,000 worth of services through shoreline stabilization and improved water quality.
Investing in natural resilience now also produces savings in the long term and investing in risk reduction measures well in advance of floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and other hazards provides better outcomes for communities than rebuilding post-disaster. It is estimated that for every $1 spent on risk reduction activities, the United States saves $6 in disaster costs, producing large savings for taxpayers and insurance policy holders over the long term.
These investments can also support local economies affected by COVID-19 by creating jobs. If a full array of natural infrastructure techniques were adopted nationwide for new construction projects over an acre in size, the job creation potential is estimated at 84,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs created and supported throughout the U.S. economy per year.
Natural infrastructure must be installed and maintained correctly to be effective. Skilled workers are needed to ensure the installation and construction of natural infrastructure projects are effective and maintain water quality standards. All of these investments can reduce air and water pollution—including the emissions driving climate change—and make our communities more resilient to climate change.
NATURAL INFRASTRUCTURE IN THE AMERICAN JOBS PLAN
This spring, the Biden administration released the Americans Jobs Plan (AJP), a nearly $3 trillion investment to grow jobs, rebuild our infrastructure, and build U.S. competitiveness. The AJP has many exciting provisions focused on restoring natural infrastructure and building community resilience.
Specifically, the American Jobs Plan calls for:
- Creation of a Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) for conservation, resilience, and restoration work across the country;
- Investment in community, nature-based resilience solutions by directing funding to FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program; and
- Establishment of a $60 billion Outdoor Restoration Fund that would empower local leaders to support collaborative restoration work.
These provisions are encouraging, and highlight the growing recognition that infrastructure investments should be paired with investments in nature-based solutions whenever it is feasible. Importantly, we must ensure that investment in restoration and resilient work creates high-quality, good-paying jobs. To that end, Biden should follow through on his commitment to build union density by ensuring that a new CCC includes partnerships with unions. A new CCC must have pre-apprenticeship pathways into registered apprenticeship programs and other training programs as well as partnerships with community colleges and non-profit organizations, centering equity at its core and ensuring greater opportunity and career pathways for women and people of color.
The American Jobs Plan includes $50 billion for infrastructure resilience, including funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program. This program is a critical resource for communities looking to increase their resilience and reduce their risk to natural disasters and hazards. However, the AJP is vague about the level of funding and how this funding will be prioritized. We are calling on Congress to increase the funding level for BRIC to the maximum amount authorized by the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, an estimated $8.7 billion over 5 years. Congress should also create a set-aside within BRIC dedicated to assisting low-income and BIPOC communities, which often lack the capacity to apply for grant funding. Finally, Congress should make it clear that BRIC funding can be used for natural infrastructure projects as well as traditional risk reduction activities.
Additionally, there are many existing programs that employ workers in ecological restoration work that should be prioritized for funding. These include the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary programs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Resiliency and Habitat Grant programs, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention program, Watershed Rehabilitation program, and Emergency Watershed Protection programs. Driving investment towards these programs will help to restore critical watersheds, coasts, and floodplains, and create jobs while building community resilience to the impacts of climate change.
The AJP also includes the Outdoor Restoration Force Act, which creates a $60 billion fund for resilience and restoration projects. These projects are critical, but this program can be bolstered if expanded to include support for state, local, and tribal governments to create climate resilience plans that incorporate community capacity needs as well as identifying nature-based infrastructure and restoration projects. In the BlueGreen Alliance’s Social Infrastructure platform, we call for the creation of resilience hubs that would assist local governments in identifying and augmenting existing community facilities to support residents and coordinate resource distribution and services for day-to-day needs as well as before, during, or after a crisis. This includes preparation and planning for both climate disasters and those like the COVID-19 pandemic. Emphasis on community capacity building and planning in addition to restoration of natural ecosystems will ensure communities are better prepared for both climate and other crises.
Finally, the AJP notes that “building back better requires that the investments…make our infrastructure more resilient in the face of increasingly severe floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and other risks.” However, the Biden administration has yet to institute Federal Flood Risk Management Standards (FFRMS) that account for flood risk in infrastructure projects. These standards are critical to provide communities with a margin of safety for flood risk, account for the future impacts of climate change, and guide federal investments away from floodplains and coastal areas vulnerable to sea-level rise. Additionally, the administration should provide increased funding to FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance grants to help communities reduce flood damage risk as well as ensure FEMA updates flood maps to make coastal and floodplain communities safer and more resilient to extreme weather and disaster events.
All of these investments must go hand in hand with measures to ensure these jobs are quality jobs, strengthen domestic manufacturing, and create positive outcomes for the communities in which the investments are happening. Important provisions to ensure the jobs created infrastructure investments are good jobs include:
- Davis-Bacon prevailing wage provisions
- Local hire requirements
- Project labor agreements (PLAs) and community benefits agreements,
- Buy America domestic content requirements
- Hiring and procurement policies that benefit low-income communities, people of color, and women
Restoration of natural ecosystems and climate resilience go hand in hand. The investments in natural infrastructure and community resilience in the American Jobs Plan are an excellent start towards building an economic recovery that confronts climate change and rebuilds our infrastructure. These investments can be built on and expanded to ensure that we are creating high-quality jobs in the restoration work and are putting communities first in planning and preparing for future conditions. If we do this right, we can create those high-quality jobs, and position the U.S. to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that rebuild community resilience and restore the natural protections that our incredible coasts, floodplains, wetlands, and forests already provide for our communities.
There are also many additional programs Congress should direct funding towards that are key resources for resilience and long-term economic recovery, such as NOAA’s National Coastal Resilience Fund, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative, and the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) program. Full funding requests for these programs are outlined in the table below.
Table 1. Natural Infrastructure Investments Needed and in the American Jobs Plan
|Recommendation||Needed investments||American Jobs Plan|
|Long-term climate adaptation funding program||No mention|
|FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants||$1.5B||No mention|
|NOAA’s National Coastal Resilience Fund||$4B||No mention|
|FEMA MitFLG||Fund and direct inventory of resources for climate resilience training/education||No mention|
|FEMA BRIC||$8.7B/5 years||Mentioned; funding unspecified|
|CDC’s Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative (CRSCI) and Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE)||$200M/10 years||No mention|
|Federal grant program for local resilience hubs||$100M/10 years||No mention|
|Climate resilient infrastructure revolving loan fund and grant program||No mention; $50B for infrastructure resilience|
|NIEHS Environmental Career Worker Training Grant Programs||$100M/10 years||$48B for workforce development infrastructure and worker protection.|