BC INITIATIVE LOOKS TO NATURE TO SOLVE INFRASTRUCTURE ISSUES AND LOWER COSTS
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By Michelle Moore
Canada's infrastructure is in decline. For municipalities large and small, it can be difficult to maintain degrading infrastructure year after year, especially in the midst of rising operating costs and an increase in the need for services that a growing population demands.
In 2012, the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering found that almost 10% of Canada's infrastructure was in poor or very poor condition, and that an additional 22.5% was only in fair condition. This includes municipal water and wastewater systems, storm water systems, road systems and more.
Every day wear and tear add up at the end of the fiscal year but sometimes the need to repair or replace infrastructure can be hastened by unforeseen events. Data compiled by the Insurance Bureau of Canada found that global disasters are costing five times what they did in the 1980's on a yearly basis. Natural disasters like flooding and hurricanes are on the rise, as are sea levels, but the solution just might be nature itself.
Green infrastructure can provide some of the same municipal services as engineered solutions or grey infrastructure. For instance, in the event of heavy rain or storm surge, wetlands absorb a lot of precipitation thereby reducing the amount of flood water that reaches human populations. This lessens property damage, damage to municipal and private infrastructure, minimizes harm, and decreases any spending that may have otherwise been spent on repairs.
A study entitled The Value of Coastal Wetlands for Flood Damage Reduction in the Northeastern USA determined that "wetlands avoided $625 Million in direct flood damages during Hurricane Sandy." The study further specifies that the more wetlands are lost, the greater risk to coastal communities, and also cited the high costs of engineered solutions like shoreline armouring.
The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI) helps municipalities identify and take into consideration the value of their natural ecosystem when it comes to financial planning. This makes the contribution that natural features make to communities more tangible by representing them in economic terms, as well making an argument to establish ways to maintain, preserve, and even expand them.
Natural assets include but are not limited to wetlands, forests, estuaries, foreshore areas, streams, creeks, ditches, fields, soil, beaches, dunes, trees, marshes, and flood plains. These features can perform such services as storm water management, flood management, water purification, drinking water supply, heat island reduction as well as improving ecosystems and air quality overall.
MNAI provides support and guidance to municipalities throughout a 16 month pilot project at the end of which municipalities have the tools to implement the lessons they learned. The project is an effort of the Smart Prosperity Institute, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Town of Gibsons, and Brooke and Associates B.C.
Roy Brooke is the Director of the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative and Principal at Brooke & Associates Consulting. He said that modern asset management doesn't focus on the asset itself but rather the services provided. He explained that "this can favour natural assets because they don't have or don't necessarily have capital cost because they are pre-existing and they can have lower operating cost relative to an engineered alternative."
Gibsons has a population of 4 400 people and is located on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, and was the first community to account for its natural assets. Brooke said "through a standard asset management lense ... they realized they had not accounted for the assets that deliver stormwater management services which is the forest, that they hadn"t accounted for the assets that protect the downtown core residential and business areas, this is the foreshore, nor had they accounted for the asset that provides drinking water to the community and obviates the need for a lot of technical hookup to the Sechelt Regional District, that's the aquifer."
After taking these assets into consideration they held a workshop in the fall of 2015 to see if what they had done should be reproduced in other communities. He said many different groups were in attendance including people from local and provincial government, environmental groups, and Asset Management BC.
Brooke said the conclusion everyone came to was that "not only could this approach be replicated but it should be replicated, because if a local governments' core raison d'être is to provide services sustainably to a community and natural assets can play a role, you must just as a matter of responsibility, be thinking about their role within the context of asset management there's no need to make the distinction."
What followed was fundraising work, and a call for proposals which led to similar pilot projects in Grand Forks, Nanaimo, the District of West Vancouver in B.C and the town of Oakville, and the Region of Peel in Ontario.
He said that "because of the age of infrastructure in this country, because of drivers like climate change, municipal natural asset management as it sits within the broader sort of framework of asset management is only going to become more important over time, not less, no one's infrastructure is getting any newer or any cheaper to manage so this stuff is going to only going to become more important..."
In the long run, the hope is that natural asset management becomes a mainstream idea. In that vein MNAI sent a letter to provinces and territories in response to the federal government Investing in Canada Plan which includes a $9.2 billion budget for green infrastructure, urging them to recognize the full potential of natural assets.
Brooke said "basically that's $9.2 billion ... that could be either be squandered, or not squandered but you know, spent on the same old stuff that it would have been spent on anyway or else it could potentially be, and no pun intended, a real watershed moment in the rejuvenation of natural assets in this country and their ability to deliver services..."
Emanuel Machado, Chief Administrative Officer for the Town of Gibsons explained that "decisions are made about infrastructure on a regular basis and some of the bigger financial decisions are about infrastructure, and nature services doesn't have a lot of a business case just as of yet ...we are interested in making the case for nature services." He said Gibsons is trying to show that improving natural areas and increasing community capital and development can all go hand in hand.
Following a four year study of the town's natural aquifer, the 2015 Gibson Eco Asset Strategy Report determined that simply identifying the services it provides would help them make better decisions and minimize overall risk to it. The research staff found that if the aquifer were to no longer provide potable water, the town would have to invest in a water treatment plant at far more initial cost and subsequent upkeep.
Machado explained that it "was the impetus for all of this work ... the realization that our drinking water system relies on this aquifer." This natural service provides water storage and filtration and requires no additional treatment to make it suitable for drinking. As it is now, the town invests $28 000 annually in monitoring the aquifer. Machado said that while they can't put a number on the services the aquifer readily provides, to build a reservoir for a community of 5000 people would cost tens of millions.
The Eco Asset Strategy Report further acknowledged that creeks in Gibson serve to guide and treat stormwater, filtering it back into the ocean. It stated that if the creeks no longer served this function "flooding would result and either development in Upper Gibsons would need to slow or stop, or engineered infrastructure would need to be constructed and maintained…" It noted that the cost of doing so would be far more than the costs of simply maintaining the creeks at a cost of $10 000 every four years.
Machado gave another example of how using natural assets has paid off. He said after evaluating services provided by Whitetower Park, they took another look at a proposal to construct stormwater services in a part of town that was being developed and realized that those services could be provided naturally. He said, "the concrete option would have been about $4 to 4.5 million, so we literally avoided spending that money, Instead we will be spending in the neighbourhood of $300 000 to expand these ponds ..." He explained that for town council, once the costs of both options were presented it was an easy decision.
Overall, the report determined that "Gibsons' aquifer, creeks, foreshore and other natural assets provide vital services that the Town would otherwise have to provide through engineered solutions. The assets can, in theory, last indefinitely and they never depreciate. They can also typically be maintained at a fraction of the cost of an engineered alternative."
Machado said that green infrastructure has no upfront costs, no depreciation and is carbon neutral, making it hard to ignore. Gibsons has been assisting other communities to evaluate and take value in their natural assets as well, acting as what Machado called the living laboratory. He said the "interest has been quite tremendous, the pilots are helping us to get more materials and a different appreciation and understanding for different kinds of assets."
Five more pilot projects are currently taking place in the City of Courtenay, B.C., the City of Oshawa, ON, the Western Valley Regional Service Commission, the N.B., the District of Sparwood, B.C. with the fifth to be announced shortly. Machado added "we want to continue to do more, it's been a very good experiment, it's kind of what we do these days. It's been core to our business, we can't imagine not doing what we are doing."
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