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Green Infrastructure: Cost Effective Strategy to Preserve Water Quality

By: Kate Gazzo

Even though drinking water is disinfected and filtered, anthropogenic pollution to surface waters may be lowering the quality of your drinking water. As you turn on your tap, pharmaceuticals, industrial and agricultural chemicals, heavy metals, and in some cases pathogens may be flowing out. Human health effects from lowered water quality range from acute illness stemming from microbial outbreaks to more common, chronic exposure to a wide range of aforementioned contaminants. Even though water filtration and disinfection can remove a lot of these contaminants, some are still present in domestic supplies. During a five year study (2004-2009) analyzing tap water from across the U.S., over 300 different contaminants were identified; 200 of these contaminants were not under federal or state regulation and a quarter of these 200 unregulated contaminants were above human health guidelines.

A combination of increasing chemicals and chemical loads in waterways stemming from Nonpoint Source Pollution (NPS) combined with urban sprawl and development are elevating the risk for contaminants to enter drinking water sources. Sprawl and development contribute to habitat loss and fragmentation, including a loss of natural watershed areas such as forests and floodplains which are essential for the protection of water supplies.

An increasing diversity, as well as magnitude, of these pollutants necessitates the preservation and protection of watershed areas, especially those upstream of drinking water sources. Drinking water sources are headwater areas to an end route, such as a lake or river. Protecting upper watershed lands and key buffer areas provide an effective barrier against common drinking water contaminants including, agricultural, industrial, and urban water pollution sources. Currently water utilities spend $4 billion each year on chemicals alone to treat drinking water; in contrast, only $200 million (one twentieth of this amount) is spent on the protection of source waters and watershed protection efforts. Increasing drinking water treatment costs are leading to costly water bills for consumers.

Although humans have engineered drinking water filtration plants to filter and purify drinking water, these services are provided by ecosystems for free and are often just as effective at meeting water quality standards. Multiple cities, including some of the largest cities in the U.S. including New York, Boston, and Seattle consistently meet drinking water quality standards with limited use of human engineered filtration systems. These cities rely primarily on green infrastructure (forests, grasslands, and riparian areas) to safeguard their water supplies. As a result these cities have saved millions and in some cases, such as New York City billions of dollars in potential human engineered or gray infrastructure.

Proposed cost-savings shown in blue (millions of dollars) for Portland, ME who is investing in green infrastructure including, restoration and preservation. Potential gray infrastructure costs shown in gray. (Figure courtesy of Gartner et al., 2013)

Proposed cost-savings shown in blue (millions of dollars) for Portland from investing in green infrastructure including, restoration and preservation. Potential gray infrastructure costs shown in gray. Figure courtesy of Gartner et al., 2013.

In New York City, a drinking water filtration system, the Croton Water Filtration Plant, was necessitated in the 1990’s by the U.S. EPA and NY State Department of Health mostly as a result of the developing upstream watershed. When completed, the Croton Water Filtration Plant will supply 10 % of the city with water from the Croton watershed, however, 90% of NYC, or eight million people still receive unfiltered drinking water from the protected Catskill-Delaware (Cat-Del) watershed. Due to the continued protection of the Cat-Del watershed, New York City is well known for the best tasting and purest drinking water in the world. The city also avoided $6 billion in the construction of a second water filtration plant by committing $1.5 billion to watershed protection over a 10 year period, further enhancing the upstream Cat-Del watershed.

The protection of the Cat-Del watershed exemplifies how protection and restoration of key land areas is a wise investment to reduce human health risks and water treatment costs. Soil and vegetation within protected watersheds degrade and filter pollutants transported form upstream areas and thereby lower the risk of downstream water contamination. Cities that invest in green infrastructure save money on treatment costs because ecosystem services decrease the level of treatment needed. For every 10 percent increase in forest cover, treatment costs decrease by 20%. Considering an average treatment plant may treat 20 million gallons/day, a 20% decrease in treatment costs may save thousands of dollars.

The percentage of forested area within a watershed is directly related to treatment costs. (Table courtesy of Ernst et al., 2004)

The percentage of forested area within a watershed is directly related to treatment costs. Table courtesy of Ernst et al., 2004.


Ernst, C., Gullick, R., & Nixon, K. (2004). Protecting the Source Conserving Forests to Protect Water. American Water Works Association. Opflow, 30(5).

Gartner, T., Mulligan, J. Schmidt, R., Gunn, J. (2013). Natural Infrastructure: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection in the U.S. World Resources Institute. Washington, DC. doi:ISBN 978-1-56973-813-9

National Research Council. (2000). Watershed Management for Potable Water Supply: Assessing the New York City Strategy (p. 545). Washington DC. Retrieved from

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Reimagining Roadways for Improved Environmental Performance

By: Jeffrey Harlan, LEED AP

As the summer travel season approaches, many Americans will hit the highways, city streets, and rural roads to reach their vacation destinations. Buzzing by at 65 miles per hour (or more), little thought will be given to how the vehicular transportation network – there are 4.09 million miles of roads in the United States, including 175,514 miles of the National Highway System – impacts our natural resources.

But there are companies, individuals, and communities that are thinking big and small about re-envisioning how our roads can positively impact the environment. In fact, improving roadway infrastructure is not just about transportation anymore.

One of the more imaginative and revolutionary ideas is to generate energy by replacing our asphalt roads with solar panels. That’s right, Solar Roadways.

Solar Roadways founders Scott and Julie Brusaw, the husband-wife team have developed a prototype of industrial-strength solar panels (with specially textured glass coating) that can be installed on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, bike paths, and almost any other surface under the sun. Solar Roadways estimates that solar roadways roads could produce more than three times the electricity consumed in the United States. The modular system also features LEDs to make road lines and signage, heating elements to stay snow/ice free, and a Cable Corridor for fiber optic cables and other infrastructure (including stormwater).

Solar Roadways | Michéle Ohayon from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

After completing two phases of funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for research and development, Solar Roadways initiated an internet crowdsourcing campaign through to raise the funding needed to gear up for production. As of June 2014, Solar Roadways have raised over $2M of their $1M goal!

Another big idea for reusing our roadway system comes from William McDonough, a noted designer, architect, thought leader, and sustainability expert. McDonough’s current initiative is to utilize the countless acres of highway and railway landscape buffers to create critical food supply and habitat for monarch butterflies, whose numbers have dramatically declined over the past few decades. In 2013, only 33 million monarchs were recorded in the annual North American migration to Mexico, down from 556 million in 2003.

Monarch butterflies have suffered a one-two punch recently. First, their coveted habitat in Mexico (where they spend the winter) was decimated by cutting the amount of essential forest land; more than 44 acres of habitat in 1996 has been reduced to about an acre and a half today. Second, their food supply—milkweed—has been almost eradicated by herbicides applied to America’s corn and soybean crops.

McDonough’s solution to save the monarchs and promote biodiversity is to plant residual lands (e.g, the forgotten landscapes along highways) with milkweed. One piece of the puzzle is to generate widespread interest in monarchs. McDonough points to an app funded by the Annenberg Foundation that encourages children to take photos of monarchs with their smart phones to record the butterflies’ migrations. To date, the app has been downloaded over 900,000 times! Another avenue to promote the butterfly’s revitalization is to rebrand the food supply. Milkweed’s public appeal is limited because, well, it’s a weed. McDonough proposes a public relations campaign centered on growing the “milkflower” or “monarch flower” to encourage people to plant this vital species in their gardens.

At the local level, one organization in Los Angeles is taking to the streets to incorporate natural systems in neighborhood infrastructure. Water LA, a non-profit that advocates for capturing, conserving, and reusing water, has retrofitted residential avenues to better manage stormwater, decrease urban runoff, and replenish water supplies. One project, the Woodman Avenue Median Retrofit in the Panorama City neighborhood, was designed and constructed with native and drought tolerant landscaping and trees to capture stormwater from the surrounding 120 acre-area. Runoff is directed into pre-treatment devices and a naturalized, vegetated swale where it infiltrates into the ground to recharge groundwater supplies.

Project  transformed the 3/4 mile-long concrete median (left image) with native landscaping to capture the rain runoff from the surrounding 120 acres.  Images courtesy of The River Project.

Project transformed the 3/4 mile-long concrete median (left image) with native landscaping to capture the rain runoff from the surrounding 120 acres. Images courtesy of The River Project.

Water LA has continued its educational efforts at the grassroots level by offering community workshops about best management practices for residential properties. Residents are learning about how to conduct site assessments; install rain gardens, parkway bioswales, and greywater systems; and “kill” their water-hungry lawns. These design strategies, integrated with green infrastructure improvements to roadways, illustrate how local streetscapes can play an important role in natural resource protection.

Whether it’s generating energy, promoting biodiversity, or helping manage local water resources, our roads and highways are proving to be fertile ground for innovative approaches to environmental management and stewardship.

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Endangered Species Act Proposed Changes & Impacts

By: William Coleman

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) jointly proposed new language related to critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The new approach is intended to increase the predictability and transparency of critical habitat decision making and set the stage for addressing current and future habitat conservation needs. This is especially significant because the agencies appear to be connecting climate change adaptation with ecological risk management for the first time.

Under the ESA, the FWS and NMFS ensure that federal agency actions don’t result in the “destruction or adverse modification” of designated critical habitat. Among other changes, the proposed language:

  • Revises the definition of adverse modification to read, “…alteration that appreciably diminishes the conservation value of critical habitat for listed species.” This change emphasizes the role critical habitat plays in species recovery since habitat loss is a leading cause of species’ decline. The definition is especially significant because it can apply to both current habitat and to habitat that alters over time, including as a result of climate change.
  • Describes the scope and purpose of critical habitat and clarifies the method by which critical habitat is designated. Numerous minor modifications are proposed, including a definition of features used to determine critical habitat under “dynamic habitat conditions”. Such conditions describe challenges species will likely face as a result of changing rainfall patterns, temperatures, storm intensity and sea level rise that are associated with climate change The agencies’ broader focus introduces an element of “adaptability” into the framework of the critical habitat designation process itself.

What does this mean?

For land holders and developers, these changes would remove existing limitations on the designation of unoccupied habitat even if these land areas currently have no physical or biological features supporting listed species. As a result land only needs to have the “potential” to contribute to species recovery to qualify for critical habitat designation.

The proposed changes expand the agencies scope, increasing their ability to make broad-scale designations of critical habitat. Furthermore, the number of “adverse modification” determinations will likely increase (because potential habitat is being so broadly defined), impacting project costs associated with changes due to the location of critical habitat.

Every state in the U.S. has at least one species, if not significantly more, included in these review categories. Further, of the 1,527 species listed by both FWS and NMFS within the U.S., only 688 species presently have critical habitat designations. The potential number of new critical habitat designations within the next three to four years could exceed 150 species made under the newly proposed rules and draft policy.

However, the presence of rare species or critical habitat on private property does not necessarily lead to restriction as to how the property may be developed or utilized. In fact, incentive programs have been established to reward property owners for conserving properties with the potential to support rare species. This includes market-based programs supported by FWS and NMFS-supported conservation banks and easements. Landowners will want to pay careful attention to developments in their states that could represent opportunities for generating significant long term revenues from these incentive based programs. Great Ecology works with large industrial and commercial land holders as well as private landowners to realize market-based conservation value from underutilized properties supporting rare species and habitats.

For more information about these market-based incentive programs and how the proposed language may impact your projects contact us today.

The proposed language is currently in the public comment period but ends July 11, 2014.

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Great Ecology’s Kentucky Office Opens

Great Ecology is thrilled to announce the opening of our newest office in Lexington, Kentucky. Led by Kentucky native and Great Ecology’s Associate Designer, Erin Hathaway, it is an exciting opportunity as the region moves towards a more sustainable and natural resource sensitive approach to design. Erin specializes in ecological guided design and has worked on complex restoration and design projects nationwide. As a member of the KYASLA executive committee, Erin is looking forward to becoming more involved in the local design community.

Contact Erin to learn more about Great Ecology’s ecological guided design services in Kentucky.

Great Ecology Kentucky Office Great Ecology’s Kentucky Office
163 East Main St, 3rd Floor,
Lexington, KY 40507
(859) 559-4058


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Setting a New Standard for Ecological Landscape Design

By: Chris Loftus, RLA

All landscapes hold “the potential to both improve and regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their natural state.” (SITES, 2009)

To help achieve that potential, Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) sets environmental benchmarks and provides guidelines for sustainable landscape design. SITES v2, a revised rating system, will be released later this year and will establish the initiative as a tool for evaluating sustainable site design solutions.

SITES is a voluntary program similar to the USGBC’s LEED certification. While LEED pertains primarily to buildings and developments, SITES focuses on performance criteria for a built landscape’s ability to provide ecosystem services. In addition to reducing environmental impacts, ecosystem services provide long term economic benefits.

Founded in 2005, SITES evolved from the combined efforts of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanical Garden. The SITES pilot program was initiated in 2010 to gather more information and develop more permanent guidelines. Since then, 162 projects in 34 states registered with the program, 30 of which received certification as sustainable sites. An additional 50 projects are currently pursuing certification, including the Fort Totten North Park in New York, a collaboration involving Nancy Owens Studio and Great Ecology.

Fort Totten North Park. Image courtesy of Nancy Owens Studio.

Fort Totten North Park. Image courtesy of Nancy Owens Studio.

SITES evaluates projects based on various criteria including site selection, habitat preservation and restoration, stormwater management, construction practices, and long term maintenance strategies. The criteria are divided into broad categories including site design for water, soil, vegetation, monitoring, and innovation. Projects earn credits by fulfilling requirements and are certified after accumulating sufficient credits.

SITES certified pilot program, Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center.  Image courtesy of SITES.

The Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center is 1 of 30 SITES certified pilot projects. Image courtesy of SITES.

The Mesa Verde Visitor Research Center, a pilot project that earned SITES certification, was completed in late 2012 in southwest Colorado. The project encompasses 105 acres of desert landscape within Mesa Verde National Park. Through the use of native plant material, appropriate soil management practices, on-site renewable energy generation, and the establishment of a sustainable maintenance program, the Center met SITES certification requirements. In addition to implementing sustainable measures, the Center provides opportunities for visitors to learn about the project’s regenerative qualities through interpretive trails, signage, and immersion in the landscape.

Bridges across bioswales at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Image courtesy of SITES.

Bridges across bioswales at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Image courtesy of SITES.

Another pilot project, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Research Support Facility, combined a 175-acre conservation easement, Low Impact Development (LID) stormwater management techniques, and Smart Growth principles to earn SITES certification. Located in arid Golden, Colorado, the project conserves water by harvesting stormwater for irrigation. A network of bioswales, bioretention basins, and native vegetation corridors was constructed to imitate historic drainage patterns and treat contaminated runoff from impervious surfaces. The project’s other sustainable features include porous paving materials and the use of salvaged stone for retaining wall construction.

Pilot projects such as Mesa Verde and NREL illuminate challenges associated with the SITES system. Completing the necessary documentation and tracking SITES requirements through design, construction, and monitoring incurs additional financial burdens. Gathering sufficient baseline data for monitoring project performance and insuring the implementation of long term maintenance measures can also prove difficult. The revised rating system aims to address these and other issues by incorporating knowledge gained through the pilot program, input from technical advisors, and additional research.­

The benefits of participation in SITES include energy savings, reduced infrastructure and long-term maintenance costs, marketing and PR opportunities, and healthier, more productive places to live, work, and play. SITES is gaining momentum and will likely continue to do so. It may soon be incorporated into the LEED certification system, which could streamline inefficiencies and introduce SITES to a broader audience.

As demand for environmentally sound development continues to increase and understanding of the value of ecosystem services grows, SITES will guide the enhancement and restoration of ecosystems while realizing positive economic impacts.



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Great Ecology Joins SER/SETAC Workshop

Ecology Team Manager, Timothy Hoelzle, joins the joint SETAC/SER-sponsored Technical Workshop, titled Restoration of Impaired Ecosystems: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Cure. The week long workshop unites the nation’s leading scientists and practitioners to discuss best practices and research regarding the remediation and restoration of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems on contaminated sites. Outcomes from the workshop include a series of publications and presentations at the 2014 North American SETAC Conference in Vancouver this November, as well as a primer describing issues related to the restoration of contaminated lands.


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The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan in A Nutshell

By: Jessie Quinn, Ph.D.

The deadline for the public review and comment period for the Draft Bay-Delta Conservation Plan is approaching in mere weeks, on June 13, 2014. Did you wait until the last minute to skim the approximately 40,000-page document and send in a comment or two? Fear not! Here in the Sacramento office of Great Ecology, we have a ringside seat for the development and (potentially) implementation of a plan that addresses one of the largest—if not the largest—water management challenges in California since the building of the California Aqueduct. In the interest of promoting an informed and involved citizenry, we have distilled the entire Plan down to an easy-to-follow information fact sheet for your edification.

San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed. Map courtesy of the U.S. EPA.

San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed.
Map courtesy of the U.S. EPA.

What is the Bay-Delta?
The Bay-Delta is shorthand for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, an inland Delta in northern California and the largest estuary on the west coasts of both North and South America. The entire Bay-Delta watershed covers more than 75,000 square miles (so, most of northern California). Fed by the melting snowpack, streams and rivers of several mountain ranges, the waterways of the Bay-Delta course across the state into several large bays before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco.

What is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?
The Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, is a regional Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP) that covers the central delta of the watershed, an area of 872,000 acres. The goal of the plan is to protect the water supply the Delta provides to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California, while also maintaining ecosystem health of the associated wetland, riparian, grassland, and forest habitats and the plant and animal species.

Images show the Delta’s extensive network of levees, weirs and canals which provides water to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California.  Left photo courtesy of

Images show the Delta’s extensive network of levees, weirs and canals which provides water to 25 million people and over 3 million acres of agricultural land in California. Images courtesy of, Left: James Davidson, Right: Flickr.

Why is the BDCP needed?
The existing water supply transport system, which conveys Bay-Delta water as far south as San Diego, consists of an extensive network of levees, weirs and canals. These aging above-ground structures are vulnerable to damage from natural disasters, such as a storm surges or earthquakes, and could result in the flooding of adjacent communities of over 500,000 people and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Sea level rise due to climate change will likely increase the scale and frequency of these catastrophic events.

The problem doesn’t stop there. Saltwater intrusion from the San Francisco Bay has always been a natural component of the Delta tidal ecosystem. However, the diversion of freshwater out of the Delta through massive intake pumps at its southern end changes the natural east-west flows through the Delta’s wetlands to north-south flows, causing a buildup of salinity in the waterways. The increasing salty water threatens to impact plant and animal species with low salinity tolerance, such as the Endangered Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus). This, as well as the levees’ contribution to the loss of floodplain habitat, natural channel margins, and tidal marsh, has resulted in a highly altered and degraded system.

Moreover, the pumps themselves disrupt the passage and migration patterns of fish such as the Smelt, Steelhead, Chinook salmon, and sturgeon. To protect the fish, certain levels of water have been mandated to remain in the Delta by a 2007 court ruling.  This reduces the available water supply, particularly in drier years. This potential year-to-year fluctuation would impact the reliability of the supply delivered throughout the state, where the demand for water is certainly not diminishing.

What solution is the BDCP proposing?
The proposed solution: divert water from north of the Delta, higher up the Sacramento River through 2 massive underground tunnels, each of which is 40-feet wide and extends 35 miles south along the Sacramento river. These tunnels would divert freshwater to the Bay Area and southern California from further upstream before the water enters the Delta, thus ensuring a reliable, high quality water supply to most of the state, while also protecting the conveyed water from potential natural disasters. Additionally, the tunnels would allow the natural east west flows to return to the Delta estuary, allowing the restoration of natural fish movement patterns.

Proposed: Two 35-mile tunnels divert water north of the Delta to increase the water supply and protect valuable native ecosystems. Easy solution? Not quite…

So, problem solved, right?
Well, not exactly. The construction of tunnels will directly impact numerous habitats in the Bay-Delta region, and will also potentially create further saltwater intrusion and habitat degradation higher up the Sacramento River, since freshwater will be removed from higher reaches of the river. To address and compensate for these anticipated impacts, the BDCP includes a joint Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)/Environmental Impact Report (EIR) under the federal and state NEPA and CEQA processes. The plan and the EIS/EIR seek a 50-year project permit to proceed with the BDCP work, which would allow some take* of Threatened and Endangered species through the regulatory context of the Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP); as compensation for the take, the plan promotes landscape-level natural community conservation in an adaptive management framework. Thus the NCCP includes plans for approximately 150,000-acres of mitigation via habitat restoration throughout the Delta over the next 50 years to compensate for impacts to sensitive species and habitats from the tunnels’ construction

Wow, all that habitat restoration! So now the problem is solved, right?

Opponents of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.  Image courtesy of Censored News.

Not everyone is behind the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.
Image courtesy of Censored News.

Not quite yet. Some argue that the plan does more harm than good, citing their worry about the increased salinity in the Sacramento River and in the Delta, which would compromise the water sources of the area’s farming operations. Yet another concern is that the tunnels will take too much water out of the rivers, drying up some downstream habitat in the drier years which are expected due to climate change and subsidence. In fact, the Delta Independent Science Board concluded that the Draft BDCP fell short of integrating the appropriate amount of science into the Plan. Particularly, the Board was concerned that the feasibility and effectiveness of the planned habitat restoration was overstated; that the plan lacked an adequate analysis of uncertainty; that there was an exclusion of discussion about climate change effects on the project over time; and that the detail in describing adaptive management methods was insufficient. This analysis was released in a report last week. Not to mention, it’s expensive: the official price tag is $25 billion, but critics claim that the actual costs could be as high as $67 billion when interest and other costs are included.

What if they fix the restoration plan and then it gets approved?
There would be yet another hurdle for the BDCP to overcome. Assuming that no lawsuits delay the EIS/EIR approval or project implementation, the funding for the habitat restoration is not guaranteed. The $4.4 billion required for the full habitat restoration will be supplemented by several sources; some of that funding depends on the passage of two Water Bonds that require passage by the voters of California. The first Water Bond has been working its way through the legislative process since 2009 and is planned for submission to the voters this year.

Now what do I do? I want to learn more about this BDCP.
Well, the BDCP website breaks down the 40,000 page behemoth into its pertinent parts to make it more digestible for the public. If you want to search farther afield and simply do a Google search for “BDCP,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find a site that doesn’t offer some strong opinion on the Plan. With a critical eye, read these pages, too! Taking the time to learn about these multiple perspectives is first step into the world of science, land management, economics, and politics that we practitioners often live in… and it’s not always pretty.

Even if you don’t plan on commenting on the Draft BDCP, the site—and the sites that have something to say about it—contain a wealth of information about the ecology of a magnificent and imperiled ecosystem. The BDCP also provides a valuable opportunity to learn about the fascinating, complex story of the long history and uncertain future of water management in California.

*The Endangered Species Act defines “take” as to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, would, kill, trap, capture, or collect.”


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Urban Habitat Restoration Gaining Ground

President Dr. Mark Laska is featured in the recent Sustainable City Network’s article, Habitat Restoration Projects Abound in Urban SettingsDr. Laska joins a panel discussing the growing focus and momentum of urban habitat restoration projects within the last 10-15 years and how this trend will continue to define our future cities.

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Retrofitting the North Atlantic Coast

By: Charlie Howe

There’s no catchall solution for sea-level rise retrofitting.

Last month the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Hurricane Sandy Rebuild Task Force unveiled 10 storm-protection proposals for the north Atlantic coastline. The proposals, which are the culmination of 10 months of research and conversation by some of the most accomplished thinkers in urban design, form the third phase of the HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition, a high-profile ideas contest aimed at developing “regionally-scalable but locally contextual” pilot projects to increase coastal resiliency.

The contest generated new conversations about what post-Sandy resiliency looks like and when the Rebuild by Design jury selects a winner (or winning projects) they will set a course for future storm-proofing efforts along the North Atlantic.

The Rebuild by Design jury is currently evaluating which proposed designs will be constructed using HUD disaster recovery grants. Considering the attention on the contest and the potential impacts of any of the proposed projects, selecting a final project is a difficult task. The jury must compare proposals that provide a suite of benefits beyond just flood protection.

Design teams are all multidisciplinary and draw on a wide range of skills and incorporate diverse values. Proposals that begin with flood prevention also layer in pedestrian circulation, waterfront access, educational opportunities within the natural environment, and nearshore habitat improvements. As former commander of the New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John Boule describes Rebuild by Design ‘…is revolutionary in the sense that we’re looking at environmental benefits, we’re looking at ecosystem services, the social value of projects. We’re incorporating those metrics. Deciding how to bring those metrics into the cost benefit analysis is a huge challenge and has tremendous potential to change federal policy, national policy.’

One finalist, the SCAPE Living Breakwaters proposal creates shellfish habitat in a series of breakwaters that would reduce storm surge on the southern coast of Staten Island, an area with some of the highest surge during Hurricane Sandy. The proposal explains that increasing function of nearshore habitat would not only provide benefits to local fisheries, but could create a focus for secondary education in environmental science.

Rendering of a proposed water hub on the shorelines behind the Living Breakwaters providing a space for recreation and education. Rendering courtesy of the SCAPE team.

Rendering of a proposed water hub located on the shorelines behind the Living Breakwaters. The hubs provide a space for recreation and education. Rendering courtesy of the SCAPE team.

Beyond weighing the many secondary benefits of each proposal, the jury must also consider projects which address storm surge at drastically different scales. The smallest, neighborhood scale proposals provide a means of targeting investment in the most vulnerable or highest value areas of the city. Projects of this size may achieve the highest return on investment in terms of flood protection per dollar invested in infrastructure. This is the ‘bang for the buck’ approach most clearly adopted in OMA’s proposal for Hoboken. Of course, it’s important to remember the benefits of neighborhood scale projects are localized and these strategies cannot be implemented in every neighborhood. The most ambitious projects, would require substantially greater funds, perhaps even surpassing the total budget allocated for post-Sandy rebuilding, $50 billion. However, it would take an approach of this scale to extend flood protection across neighborhoods and boroughs, see WXY & West 8′s Blue Dunes.

The proposed Blue Dunes design creates an offshore barrier island chain centered on the New York Bight.

The proposed Blue Dunes design address storm surge at the large scale by creating an offshore barrier island chain centered on the New York Bight. Rendering courtesy of the WXY West 8 team.

It’s clear, when evaluating the Rebuild by Design’s final proposals, each with it’s own merit, that there’s no catchall solution for sea-level rise retrofitting. For this reason, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has formed a multidisciplinary group to collaborate and create design guidelines for waterfront development. When complete, the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG) will provide a framework for incorporating the multi-functionality and resilience evident in the ten Rebuild By Design proposals in all new waterfront construction. It has been an exciting opportunity for Great Ecology to collaborate with other architects, environmental consultants, and environmental regulators to help define and protect our coastlines.

Retrofitting the north Atlantic coast will require a variety of flood protection measures, at various scales. Evaluating the cost-benefit of these projects requires us to consider environmental and social benefits in tandem with flood protection performance and has the potential to greatly enrich coastal communities.


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Join Us at the Mitigation Banking Conference

Great Ecology is excited to exhibit at the 2014 Mitigation Banking Conference in Denver – May 7-9.

Come meet our team of expert mitigation consultants including, President, Dr. Mark Laska, Senior Ecologists Dr. Puja Batra and William Coleman, and Ecologists George Patten and Joshua Eldridge. See you all in Denver at booth #17!

Learn more about our mitigation banking services, ranging from project strategy to long-term stewardship.

2014 Mitigation Banking Conference Booth

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