Green infrastructure and drinking water?

Nature is a brilliant engineer. Healthy forests and healthy watersheds provide clean, reliable drinking water for people and wildlife, free of charge. Natural systems like floodplains, healthy forests, and free-flowing rivers are called green infrastructure, because when they are working, they can naturally ensure safe, sustainable drinking water. Green infrastructure is effective, inexpensive, and regenerative.

“Headwaters forests provide over 60% of the American West’s water supply and they are in grave danger.”
-Carpe Diem West

Today, many places rely almost exclusively on grey infrastructure, human-built solutions like dams and filtration technologies. Grey infrastructure, while highly effective, is also expensive to build, maintain, replace, and upgrade. And, as we move into the 21st century, we face new water safety challenges. Our environment, climate, and communities are changing, and existing infrastructure is struggling to keep up with demand.

Working Waters believes that green infrastructure is an essential complement to gray infrastructure – and often a missing piece - in today’s water management strategies. It has the power to improve water quality and restore natural lands while helping reduce water utility costs, benefiting everyone from source to tap.


And when it comes to drinking water, in the Pacific Northwest, like elsewhere in the American West, many public drinking water utilities rely upon water from streams and rivers that originate on forested lands, much of it in public ownership. These source watersheds comprise nearly 40% of our lands in Oregon and Washington and are considered more vulnerable to contamination than groundwater, as a general rule. If the water is highly polluted it requires more time and money, and often more chemicals, to treat it to safe standards. This is money that could be put towards meeting other community priorities. Moreover, unlike with gray infrastructure, protecting and restoring the rivers and streams providing our drinking water will benefit wildlife and makes ecosystems more resilient to climate change.

Improving water quality before it ever reaches an intake pipe is more than just a good idea. It’s also baked into the Safe Drinking Water Act: the enhancement and protection of water quality and quantity at its source (aka source water control) is recognized as the first line of defense in a multi-barrier approach – that includes robust treatment, monitoring, and a secure delivery system – to ensuring safe drinking water for people. In other words, nature is part of our drinking water infrastructure system.

why dark green river

At Working Waters, we are committed to restoring nature’s ability to provide safe water for our families and wildlife by helping communities use green infrastructure whenever feasible. This is part of the next generation of water treatment and delivery systems - systems that will serve not only our homes and families, but the homes and families of our children and grandchildren.

Most of the treatment plants and pipes delivering our drinking water were originally built in the early to mid-20th century. The hard work of prior generations allowed for great strides to be made in our public health, economic development, and emergency response, contributing to the quality of life that we often take for granted today.

Unfortunately, we’ve neglected a lot of the maintenance our nation’s water treatment and supply infrastructure needs. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States’ drinking water infrastructure a grade of D, noting that “much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.” At the same time, regulatory requirements are becoming more burdensome for local water managers, many of whom – particularly in the West – are grappling with growing populations, growing water demand, and dwindling public funding for infrastructure upgrades and expansions. Climate change poses yet another challenge by contributing to water variability and reducing the reliability of existing water supplies.

"Our current prosperity and quality of life stand on the shoulders of past investments and past visionaries."
Michael Fenn, 2014, Recycling Ontario's Assets

Yet the problem remains. The American Water Works Association estimates the cost of replacing our worn-out pipes over the next 25 years at $1 trillion – and the longer we defer the maintenance, the more expensive it will become. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need smart infrastructure solutions that will work for people and the environment, without breaking the bank.

In the coming years we will also help to build an economic case for the value of green infrastructure for securing reliable supplies of clean drinking water, making it easy for water managers to make informed decisions that make sense for their constituencies. And we’re dedicated to contributing on-the-ground support to make a real difference in local ecosystems right now. From small coastal towns to high desert urban hubs, Working Waters is helping the Northwest’s communities prepare for a warming climate by looking upstream.



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Geos Institute