Coastal destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy storm surge along the New Jersey Shore © Bridget Besaw

Last month, NOAA announced that 2017 was the U.S.’s costliest year ever for natural disasters — shattering the previous record of 2005. The country suffered more than $300 billion in damages primarily due to hurricanes, severe storms, and wildfires.

This figure is staggering, but the cost is not just financial. People have lost homes, businesses, and in some instances, loved ones.

U.S. 2017 Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters
This map denotes the approximate location for each of the 16 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that impacted the United States during 2017. Source: NOAA

As Congress considers its next government funding package, lawmakers should seize the opportunity to protect our communities and invest in a cost-efficient solution that will make communities more resilient in the face of future disasters.

Investing in healthy reefs, wetlands, and other natural systems — or “green infrastructure” — will significantly reduce the impacts of flooding, storms, and wildfires. And in many cases green infrastructure can be more cost-effective than traditional gray infrastructure, particularly for coastal protection. These investments will also boost local economies, improve public health, and bolster ecosystems.

Investing in nature, reducing risk

Five years ago, I wrote a book about investing in nature. I argued that protecting nature is the smartest investment we can make to preserve our lands, waters, and communities for generations to come. I still believe that — and I’m happy to say there are even more people who are taking this view today.

It’s easy enough to convince a conservationist that investing in nature is the right thing to do. It’s a little bit trickier to get the actual money on the table. If we want to convince governments and businesses to invest in nature to protect their communities, we have to stake our claims in dollars and cents. Today, we’re doing exactly that.

Conservation organizations are working on a growing number of projects where we monetize the protection value of natural infrastructure. We know that wetlands, mangroves, reefs, and other ecosystems are naturally designed to absorb the impacts of extreme conditions, like floods and storms. We also know that these systems provide valuable co-benefits, like improved water quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, and preserved wildlife habitat. Our job now is to work with partners (other NGOs, governments, scientists, economists, engineers, and insurance companies) to assign a dollar value to nature’s benefits—and show decision makers that investing in natural systems can be a cost-effective way to protect communities.

Controlled burn
Controlled burn in the Pacific Northwest © Jason Houston

Take Hurricane Sandy, for example. Researchers found that coastal wetlands reduced more than $625 million in property flood damages. The same study found that marshes in the Northeast U.S. annually reduce flood damages by 16%.

Another post-Sandy study looked at Howard Beach, Queens to compare the cost-effectiveness of natural, hybrid and gray infrastructure to protect against future 1-in-100-year storm events. With our partners CH2M Hill, we found that blending green and gray infrastructure—such as investing in mussel beds and beach restoration, in addition to concrete breakwaters and flood walls—was the best option. In the case study scenario, this approach saves $225 million in damages, provides the most cost-effective protection, and generates ecosystem services for the highest net benefit.

In a study with the World Bank on mangroves in the Philippines, we have shown that that mangroves can annually reduce flood damages to people and property by 25%. The roots of mangroves prevent erosion while the prop roots, trunks, and canopy reduce the force of incoming wind and waves. What’s more, studies have shown that mangrove projects can be three to five times cheaper than manmade breakwaters for the same level of protection.

With our partners, including the U.S. Geological Survey, we have also shown that nearshore coral reefs reduce 97 percent of the wave energy that would otherwise damage coastlines—even for hurricane-strength waves. And we have used this information to design an innovative new coral reef restoration for risk reduction project.

Similarly, investments in healthy forests help reduce the risk of destructive megafires. A century of efforts to suppress all fires has led to forests choked with small trees, which act as tinder for megafires like the ones that devastated the west in 2017. Strategically removing that hazardous fuel is a cost-effective way to help protect people, water, and wildlife.

These are just a few ways that healthy natural systems, or “green infrastructure,” can reduce costs and risks from future disasters.

Making green infrastructure a priority

The Trump administration and leaders in Congress keep saying that one of the next priorities for the U.S. is rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. Good. Let’s do everything we can to ensure that green infrastructure is a big part of that goal.

Mangrove prop roots
An extensive blue-water mangrove is lined by red mangrove prop roots, Rhizophora mangle, reaching into the water at high tide. © Ethan Daniels

One very important next step is to pass disaster relief and funding bills, like the one currently waiting Senate approval.

In December, the House of Representatives passed a disaster aid bill to support recovery efforts from 2017’s storms and fires. But the way the bill stands—it’s not enough. Senators should include new provisions—like a comprehensive “fire funding fix”and funding to invest in coastal resilience projects. These investments won’t just help rebuild communities today—they will help to build resilience against events that may happen many years down the road.

Congress’ new deadline to pass a spending package — one that should include robust disaster relief funding, including a fire fix — is inching closer and closer. My message to lawmakers is this: as their communities recover from disasters or simply try to meet multiple goals of becoming safer, healthier and more economically vibrant, they should prioritize smart investments in nature.


This story originally appeared on February 5, 2018 in Forbes.

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkTercek.

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