Seeing Water Differently

Katherine Baer, Senior Director, Clean Water and Water Supply Programs
American Rivers

I knew something was wrong when my daughter made a drawing showing water as some mix of “pipes,” “streams” and the “ocean” – where were the fish, birds and trees? But it made sense, in a way. The nearby Gosling Pond was a stormwater detention basin surrounded by a chain-link fence, and our closest river is an armored channel with warnings posted for sewer overflows.

Her experience is common – 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, where local rivers are often polluted and inaccessible, invisible in pipes underground or completely dewatered. City dwellers face sewer overflows, basement backups and flooding resulting from outdated water management and crumbling infrastructure that will be made worse by climate change.

The good news is that we can restore clean water and better prepare for the impacts of climate change on our rivers and water systems with strategies that are also good for our communities (like the energy savings from a green roof). American Rivers and NRDC recently released Getting Climate Smart, a comprehensive guide for states as they plan for the water-related impacts of climate change . The guide includes our Top 10 No-Regret Strategies for reducing impacts.

But our Top 10 strategies are possible only if we seize the opportunity to reimagine our water infrastructure in a transformative way, moving from detention ponds and culverts to rain gardens and restored streams to build resiliency and healthier rivers.

This includes:

There are many great examples from around the country, including American Rivers' work with drinking-water utilities in Georgia – where we’re exploring solutions like green infrastructure retrofits – to restore flows to the Flint River. In Milwaukee, American Rivers recently worked with a neighborhood association to install a rainwater harvesting system that provides nearly 25,000 gallons of water a year for urban garden plots, reducing both potable water demand and polluted stormwater runoff to the Kinnickinnic River and Lake Michigan. Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District’s regional green infrastructure plan estimates that expanding rainwater harvesting to all of Milwaukee’s community gardens could save 1.7 million gallons of drinking water a year.

By 2030, almost half of our urban land will be redeveloped, presenting a major opportunity to retrofit cities and infrastructure to become more resilient. We must invest in the future of water infrastructure, and not in outdated infrastructure that is often financially and environmentally ruinous, leading to drier and dirtier rivers and more vulnerable communities. Continuing to create these new systems, often with more decentralized components, as well as seizing opportunities to align policies, funding, and financing mechanisms, is critical for people and rivers.

As my daughter grows, so I hope will our thinking on how we manage water and reinvent our water infrastructure to adapt to a changing climate. Playing in a rain garden (or cool, clean creek) beats a detention pond any day.