Fortunately, nature can help solve these problems, add important compounding benefits for nature and people, and potentially reduce the cost of addressing these challenges. Natural systems—things like healthy trees and intact coastal wetlands—have the capacity to reduce pollutants in the air, clean and maintain water supplies, and protect us from storms and hurricanes. They are tangible assets that contribute to our economy, so we must invest in them wisely to secure our shared future. And we need to invest on a scale that makes a difference. We cannot combat problems like extreme weather, aging infrastructure and population growth with small thinking. Science and experience have shown us that protecting small, fragmented parcels of land or portions of rivers will not move the conservation ball forward. So what will?
Urban Water Management
Water is about securing our collective good fortune. Over the next 20 to 30 years, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in an urban area of 10 million or more. More people in our cities will equal more demand for water, energy and food, not to mention the necessary infrastructure and economic development to support such demands. Conservation will be the key to tackling this issue—it is our least expensive option to stretch our water resources further.
We have the same amount of water today as we did thousands of years ago, so the truth is that we must all use less to guarantee sufficient water to support our rapidly growing population, grow our economy and protect our natural resources. Our success will depend on our ability to optimize the use of water for cities, energy and food production. But in doing so, we cannot pit one interest against another; it won’t work. One of the Conservancy’s most practical, proven approaches is the use of water funds, a simple but elegant solution that can be used in some of the world’s most water-constrained places. Cities and towns establish these funds through voter-approved initiatives or small fees tacked on to monthly water bills. The resulting revenue is then used to restore and protect the land that lies within important local watersheds. Science tells us that protecting the land in and around these watersheds is the most beneficial way to ensure safe and adequate water supplies. A recent EPA survey found more than 50 percent of rivers and streams in the U.S. are in ”poor biological health,” due primarily to an excess of harmful nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Water funds can help protect the quality of our water supplies in order to avoid unnecessary treatment costs in the future.
Eight of the 10 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history have happened since 2004—and all evidence suggests stronger and more destructive storms are the new normal. Within the last decade, The Federal Emergency Management Agency has poured $200 billion into the Gulf Coast region in the wake of various hurricanes—that’s roughly the cost of damages incurred by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined.
The second largest fiscal liability of the U.S. Government, behind Social Security, is the National Flood Insurance Program. But what if we could mitigate those insurance claims in the future? Rebuilding and restoring oyster reefs, wetlands, seagrass, coral reefs and coastal marshes can help safeguard coastal communities, where roughly 120 million Americans live. These natural assets create an insurance policy for the future—they are nature’s cushion against rising sea levels and storm surge, and they remove pollution from the millions of gallons of freshwater that flow into our oceans each minute. For example: A single healthy oyster can filter between 40 and 60 gallons of water; a healthy, 20-acre reef could theoretically filter as much water as the city of Houston uses on an average summer day.