Project Details


The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the US Department of Homeland Security defines and manages national security and resilience of 16 sectors of critical infrastructure. Water comprises two entire sectors--the dams sector and water and wastewater systems sector--and the resilience of at least nine other sectors has critical dependency on water infrastructure. Hence our nations built water infrastructure (BWI) is diverse and cross-sectoral. Natural infrastructure can be defined as a network of natural or semi-natural features that [intends to accomplish] the same objectives as built infrastructure (Palmer et al. 2015). Natural water infrastructure (NWI) under this definition can include wetlands, healthy soils, forest ecosystems and snowpack and the water it provides through runoff and this NWI provides services that include flood protection, erosion control, water storage and purification. Here we define natural infrastructure more broadly to include natural assets below and above ground, and altered or unaltered by human use. Hence, NWI is cross-sectoral and includes some of the same dependencies that BWI does with other critical infrastructure sectors. This expanded NWI definition includes snow and ice, forests, wetlands, swamps, floodplains, riparian areas, grasslands, shrublands, deserts, farmland, grazing lands, and the aquifers below these natural assets. One of the barriers to implementation of NWI projects is the notion that natural infrastructure can replace existing built infrastructure without loss of function and that hence, restoration of a historical baseline of nature will provide the same services as existing built infrastructure (see: Palmer et al. 2015 and Muller et al. 2015). We argue that both the either-or (natural or built) and the restore-to- historical-baseline (back to nature) approaches do not represent viable paths to increased resilience of water resources. Built infrastructure is long lived (difficult to remove) and provides a standard of risk management not yet established by natural infrastructure (difficult to replace, Muller et al. 2015). Moreover, climate change is shifting baselines extreme events like floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and intense and this already challenges our built infrastructure. Instead, we advocate and will develop a rigorous research plan below for combining, co-operating and designing portfolios of interoperable assets of natural and built water infrastructure, or NABWI. This approach is consistent with viewpoints in the financial sector, including the World Bank Group (Browder et al. 2019) which defines natural infrastructure as an initiative that intentionally and strategically preserves, enhances, or restores elements of a natural system and combines them with gray infrastructure to produce more resilient and lower-cost services. Finally, natural infrastructure tends to be built in a haphazard way, often without reference to basin-scale objectives for flood-control and water supply. Below we advocate for and develop the science foundation for Engineering With Nature (EWN) as a strategic, outcomes-based approach to the design and operations of integrated NABWI systems. This EWN approach supports design of both constructed and restored natural assets strategically placed and operated to improve the function of existing (and failing) built water infrastructure. Specifically, we propose to develop a modelling toolkit that will allow for rapid, scenario-based assessment of outcomes of combinations of natural and built infrastructure. This toolkit will include domain science (hydrology and geohydrology) and data science (data integration, artificial intelligence, operations research and visualization). Specifically we ask: What combinations of data science are needed to advance EWN solutions within a particular hydrologic and water resources context? In other words, what is the missing data science ingredient necessary to bring EWN solutions to decision makers such that EWN solutions are implemented, replicated and scaled strategically? We evaluate this question in the context of impact (water resources and environmental flows), economics (cost efficacy), institutional tractability and equity of benefit (full ESG). Most of our Year 1 work will be basic science and engineering (R&D); however, our three-year goal is to identify shovel-ready pilot projects in western landscapes that the US Army Corps of Engineers could lead in collaboration with state agencies, private companies and NGOs. In addition to this R&D, we propose two crosscutting activities that will help the Network for EWN (NEWN) create a value proposition for natural infrastructure within the Army Corps and beyond and create equitable solutions that deliver benefits to the most inclusive base of end users. Crosscut 1: Online short courses. One hour mini courses on natural infrastructure that leverage results from our R&D to enroll a larger network of EWN advocates within the US Army Corps of Engineers and in the water resources policy community. Crosscut 2: Development of equity analytics and standardsR&D that helps standardize approaches to measuring inclusion in the process of EWN planning and science and equitable distribution of costs and benefits of EWN solutions
Effective start/end date8/1/218/2/21


  • DOD-ARMY: Army Corps of Engineers (USACE): $4,499,990.00


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