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“Finding infrastructure solutions that balance environmental, economic, and social needs has never been more challenging. So planners and engineers have never had a greater opportunity to contribute their ingenuity,” said Dr. John Mogge, technology director of CH2M’s Environmental and Nuclear Business Group. As he describes in Investment Grade Green and Sustainable Infrastructure, the United States can view the US$1.2 trillion, 5-year infrastructure funding shortfall as a challenge, or as an opportunity to tap into “investors who see green and sustainable infrastructure as worthy of their investment.”
For more than 30 years, CH2M has played a leading role in adapting innovative approaches to water quality, flood control, and stormwater management challenges around the world. Back in 1991, we pioneered the concept of regional low-impact development approaches in Guiding Growth: Building Better Communities and Protecting our Countryside, dispelling the myths of porous pavement durability with our initial installations that date back to 1983.
Now, as the need for resiliency and infrastructure reinvestment escalates and global economic challenges continue, we must change the game more quickly and include ecosystems as a part of engineering design, alongside visionary partners, collaborators, and forward-thinking clients in all sectors.
Power of Nature: Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services, and Green Infrastructure
Directly or indirectly, all companies use natural capital, which is the earth’s stock of air, land, water, and biodiversity, to support economic growth and job creation. Ecosystem services, such as water supply, pollination, soil fertility, the water filtration functions of riparian areas, and the storm protection provided by coastal wetlands, are the valuable and economically important goods and services that natural capital provides to business and society. Across CH2M’s projects, we use a valuing nature lens to reduce impacts on natural capital and help our clients achieve sustainable access to valuable ecosystem services.
One way we value nature is to actively promote green infrastructure solutions, which harnesses the power of natural capital to provide ecosystem services—work that nature historically provides for free—to address water quality, climate adaptation, environmental remediation, and resource availability challenges. Relative to traditional gray infrastructure, these solutions can enhance natural capital and their construction, operation, and maintenance and can have a significantly lower environmental footprint. CH2M offers a wide range of green infrastructure solutions, including natural water filtration systems, stormwater engineering, treatment wetlands, green roofs, alternative caps and covers, and rain gardens.
Power of Partnerships: Transforming Engineering Practice
Engaging nature as a partner is a departure from standard engineering practice. In the early 20th century, dilution was the solution for water quality issues. As that approach failed and riverine ecosystems suffered from untreated wastewater loads, engineers innovated chemical and mechanical treatment systems and defended communities against flooding with levees. That is when our industry adopted the engineers’ mantra: “Build it strong, build it stout, using things you know about.” It is important to remember that this approach worked: we cleaned up the problems of the past and built an entire regulatory framework around these technologies, from municipal ordinances to national laws.
As communities and companies face the challenges associated with climate change, failing infrastructure, and not enough money to fix it all, we are partnering with skilled visionaries to change the way we approach infrastructure solutions. It is time to incorporate nature into our calculations and gain multiple pathways to resiliency.
We committed to providing natural capital and green infrastructure solutions to our clients through the launch of the Corporate Eco Forum’s Valuing Natural Capital Initiative. This initiative demonstrates the business value of nature, galvanizes action, and drives investment in natural infrastructure around the world. Our strong belief in the value of nature is also why we became a founding charter member of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure.
In 2014, we helped launch the Natural Capital Business Hub in concert with over 40 global companies, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Corporate Eco Forum. To demonstrate our commitment, we pledged to report on at least five high-impact green infrastructure projects each year to build awareness and promote green infrastructure solutions. The following five projects and partnerships represent a fraction of the efforts undertaken by CH2M annually.
WBCSD: Natural Infrastructure Is a Great Deal for Business
In Paris during the climate agreement negotiations at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), the world’s attention was riveted on climate change. At the same time, WBCSD launched NI4Biz.org. CH2M created the guide in collaboration with TNC, drawing on the experience of a number of corporations that have chosen to value nature and implement green infrastructure solutions.
The NI4Biz guide was developed by business, for business. The guide raises awareness about natural infrastructure approaches, defines the business case for investing in natural capital through robust case studies, and provides a decision tree and support tools for helping business decide when and how to integrate natural infrastructure to their sites. Not only is green infrastructure a cost-effective way for businesses to protect assets, meet regulatory requirements, and achieve a number of other objectives, but it is also key to climate adaptation and mitigation. Press coverage for NI4Biz illustrates the benefits to companies of adopting this approach, as well as the benefits for nature:
- “In the business context, saving nature for nature’s sake does not work,” said Neil Hawkins, Chief Sustainability Officer for Dow Chemical. “A constructed wetland in Texas delivered $200 million in value to Dow while also providing several hundred acres of migratory bird habitat.”
- “Green infrastructure is simply a good deal,” said Mark Tercek, CEO of TNC. “It often costs less than gray infrastructure, performs better, and delivers a whole bunch of co-benefits for free.”
- “The real strength of this tool is it’s evidence-based,” Brandy Wilson, CH2M Global Sustainability Director, said. “These aren’t ideas, but things companies are doing right now to solve their infrastructure problems, save money, and also benefit the environment and community that they serve.”
Investing in nature, as Tercek pointed out in his blog, is gaining traction as a climate solution. As we work with WBCSD and TNC to share the news about NI4Biz throughout 2016, we see it as a clear opportunity to transform engineering practice and engage companies and communities in natural infrastructure outcomes.
Dow Sarnia Site Remediation: Soil Is Not a Waste; It’s a Resource
During World War II, the Dow Sarnia site manufactured synthetic rubber for the war effort. Manufacturing operations for all kinds of chemicals and materials continued at the site for nearly 70 years. After the site’s closure, Dow retained CH2M to assist with site cleanup and closure activities. Rather than following traditional disposal methods and taking the problem somewhere else, Dow and CH2M worked together to manage materials in place through a constructed temporary onsite soil treatment operation, as well as used naturally occurring soil bacteria, plants, and trees to accelerate contaminant removal. The work provided opportunities to further research new approaches and technologies. In the ultimate natural partnership, a landfill was turned into a wetlands recreational and educational amenity for the community.
Dow and CH2M planted more than 400 trees at the Sarnia site, further building on the parties’ commitment to environmental health by using the trees to control groundwater elevations and minimize the spread of contaminated soils in the area. Throughout the project, the Dow-CH2M team refused to think of contaminated soil as waste, but rather as a resource. Treating soil onsite reduced the carbon footprint of the Sarnia site, minimized exposure of harmful materials to neighboring communities, and allowed for significant cost savings when compared to the cost of transporting materials for disposal at an offsite hazardous waste facility. To continue to shape future, leading-edge remediation technologies, Dow and CH2M joined with a consortium of Canadian universities to move bench-scale remedial technologies into viable commercial applications.
Exeter Flood Defense Scheme: Restoring Rivers and Wetlands through Good Design
In the United Kingdom, river and wetland restoration is often rendered as part of large-scale flood defense schemes, as an enhancement or added benefit. Often these scheme elements are the first casualties during the value engineering process and where budget savings are needed. However, recent changes to government funding for habitat restoration and creation in the UK have supported a more integrated approach to large infrastructure and flood schemes where delivery of challenging habitat targets can be achieved.
The Exeter Flood Defense Scheme (Exeter FDS), which incorporates major upgrading of existing flood protection, is a good example of how well integrated design can work within the constraints of an urban environment. Incorporating new and restored wetland habitats has been a vital part of scheme design, promoted by the Environment Agency and supported by their project partners. Once funding was secured, the Environment Agency-CH2M team collaborated to develop integrated designs that would both protect Exeter from flooding as well as safeguard new areas of wetland and river habitat. Exeter FDS has provided a model of how flood risk management-habitat restoration project partnerships can be successful in the UK, and other schemes are already in development using a similar approach.
TNC: Protecting Coastlines and Enhancing Ecosystems
As TNC’s Jen Molnar wrote in Bringing Nature into the Engineer’s Toolbox, “Scientists are comfortable with–and often relish–ambiguity and investigating the unknown. Engineers use knowledge to solve problems and deliver new products and solutions. They seek to create innovative solutions by building on established evidence... Now the conservation community is wisely working directly with engineers—not just to reduce impacts, but to jointly find solutions for both people and nature.”
We’re jumping on that opportunity through our collaborative agreement with TNC, a global nonprofit leader in science and conservation. Investing together in projects and thought leadership opportunities that establish the business case for natural infrastructure is another way we work to transform engineering practice. In 2015, we had three key projects that reflect the nature of our work:
- Facing rising sea levels and more frequent storms, the world’s coastal communities and infrastructure need long-lasting solutions. TNC and CH2M published guidance on how regions can integrate nature-based solutions that will withstand the test of time and climate change. “Coastal Risk Reduction: Integrating Natural Defenses into a Sustainable Coastal Risk Management Framework” recommends that coastal regions develop strategic coastal resilience plans to reduce the environmental and socio-economic risks of coastal hazards in a sustainable manner. The document will assist communities and organizations responsible for coastal zone management to collaborate on plans that cross administrative boundaries, in recognition that nature does not recognize, or reflect, such boundaries.
- In Rhode Island, the Narrow River estuary is home to many shore and wetland birds and a variety of other wildlife; it is also eroding quickly. Scientists from TNC, ecologists and engineers from CH2M, and wildlife refuge managers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) assessed the Narrow River’s degrading shoreline and gathered for a workshop to look at what had been attempted in the past and how to make it better going forward. At the workshop, we collaboratively tackled tough questions like what resilience means for this site, and how to define natural infrastructure to create a new design.
- TNC and CH2M staff worked together to restore intertidal marsh habitat in Mobile Bay, Alabama, and reduce erosion through design and installation of 6,000 feet of oyster reef. We engaged over 300 volunteers in the construction of the structure to increase community investment and familiarity with, and ownership of, the natural solution.
Lower Woodsford River and Floodplain Enhancement: Restoring Dynamic River Processes and Improving Connectivity
In the 1970s, Woodsford Farm received grant aid to increase production through dredging, drainage, and embankment creation. Changing priorities with the farm and challenges with floodplain arable farming influenced their decision to take 15 hectares (37 acres) of land out of production. Working with the Farm Manager, the Environment Agency’s Lower Woodsford project restored 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of the River Frome SSSI (Dorset) and enhanced 15 hectares (37 acres) of floodplain, including planting over 20,000 trees.
Lower Woodsford floodplain scrapes
The removal of stone revetment and lowering of embankments has reintroduced natural river processes to encourage Assisted Natural Recovery within the main river channel, while a network of floodplain channels and scrapes and ditch reprofiling maximized floodplain habitat opportunities. This floodplain restoration has restored hydrological connectivity between the river and floodplain. The material gained during construction of scrapes and channels was used for a flood bund to protect a National Grid high-voltage pylon, and some of the stone removed from the river was used as revetment protection.
The ecological design was led by CH2M and a collaboration of agencies and environmental bodies, including Environment Agency, Natural England, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Forestry Commission, and the Woodland Trust. The support of a very passionate landowner enabled the successful delivery and realization of habitat potential throughout the site.
Power of Investment: Financing for Success
In collaboration with TNC and a wide variety of stakeholders, we analyzed multiple approaches to protecting coastal communities from intense storms, such as the community of Howard Beach in Queens, New York. Our task was to develop natural and traditional gray infrastructure alternatives for coastal engineering after Superstorm Sandy struck New York City in 2012, including financing options. In 2016, we received a Diamond Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York for this work, which we hope will inspire the same type of work going forward and the recognition that engineering is not enough; economic solutions have to be part of the picture.
In 2013, we joined forces with Encourage Capital (formerly, EKO Asset Management Partners) to bring new financing solutions to communities seeking natural infrastructure or hybrid solutions for environmental issues like stormwater management. Through the creation of Green Path Partners, we are breaking new ground in looking at innovative public-private financing for these projects.