Posted by: Vicki Burns | May 16, 2013

Natural Infrastructure & Grey Infrastructure – What Are They & What’s The Connection to Water?

Wetlands, photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited

Wetlands, photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited

Recently I’ve begun to use the term “natural infrastructure” (I didn’t coin it) because we’ve had a lot of news about tax dollars being needed to pay for infrastructure. Its seems like an opportune time to get people thinking about the economic and environmental benefits of putting a portion of our infrastructure dollars towards “natural infrastructure” versus “grey infrastructure” which is the traditional engineered concrete and steel approach. So here is why I’m drawing attention to this now.

Over the last couple of months Manitobans have been living with the fear of another flood and all the devastation it brings to those affected- humans, animals and our lakes. The good news is that we have avoided a major flood this year due to the long, cold, dry spring that slowed down the melt. However there have been pockets of flooding that have wreaked devastation in specific locales, like the flash flood in Gilbert Plains that caused the death of 12 farm animals. Apparently the water rose several feet in a matter of 40 minutes and although it moved through very quickly, the ranchers did not have time to rescue all their animals. This particular area has never seen flooding before and the residents attribute it to all the drainage that has occurred upstream of them.

The practice of drainage of our landscapes has been going on for the past century in North America with the result being that we have lost 70 % of our wetlands across the Prairies. Those wetlands provide natural infrastructure functions of holding on to water, slowing it down in heavy rain or flood events and filtering some of the phosphorus and nitrogen that we don’t want getting into our waterways to feed the blue-green algae. So when you consider we’ve lost 70% of those important functions its no surprise that were seeing more incidence of flooding and increasing degradation of lakes with large blue-green algae blooms. Our Lake Winnipeg actually received the designation of Threatened Lake of 2013 because of the growing problem of blue-green algae, some of which is toxic.
Grey infrastructure has helped large communities to avoid flood destruction but it cannot protect the rural landscape, farms and small communities nor can it keep all the excess phosphorus and other pollutants from fouling our lakes. That’s what natural infrastructure, wetlands, can do! So protecting wetlands and reconstructing in targeted areas some of the water-holding capacity that natural infrastructure offers, would be a very smart and efficient use of some of our tax dollars.

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