It’s Not Me, It’s You; Breaking up with Traditional Gray Infrastructure


Does this sound familiar?

Them (let’s call s/he Gray): “I will always be there for you, I promise.”
You: “I just don’t completely trust you anymore, this isn’t working out.”
Gray: “But together, we can withstand anything!”
You: “Yes, I know you defend me in most situations, but at what cost? I need something different.”
Gray: “But who will take care of me when I’m old and decrepit?”
You: “I’m not sure I want that obligation anymore.”
Gray: “I can’t believe you are looking for anything but ME!”

We’ve all been there, stuck in a stagnant relationship that seems to be going nowhere just because we’re too hesitant to depart from the traditional norms. Sure they were always there for you at the beginning, but what happens when maintaining the relationship just doesn’t make sense anymore, becomes too expensive, or that stability is shaken by a catastrophic event?

Coastal communities are at the most risk from storms and rising waters that are expected to increase with the changing climate. While risk reduction strategies vary based on local factors, all too often we choose to invest in traditional “Gray” infrastructure without considering other options that might be a better match for the social, economic, and environmental conditions. Gray infrastructure refers to engineered coastal defenses for controlling sea level and storm surge water through structures usually made of concrete, piles of rock, wood, and earthen material intended to keep the salt water from inundating land. These are single-purpose investments like seawalls, groins, levees, and dikes intended to safeguard our communities. These are not cheap structures, requiring repair and maintenance over time. Not a cheap date, and not necessarily a sustainable relationship. Although Gray has protected millions of people and is a reliable option for the massive storms we see every year, is it always the best solution? Can Gray be combined with alternative solutions? Depending on conditions, can Gray be replaced entirely with other options? It may be difficult to admit when you’re in such a co-dependent relationship, but when all of your friends and family are telling you that you should consider alternatives to Gray, it may be time to listen.

Fortunately, coastal communities like you are beginning to recognize the value of “Green” infrastructure. Green infrastructure refers to an approach using environmentally sustainable techniques for coastal defense. These are coastal habitats including tidal marshes and mangroves, oyster and coral reefs, beaches and dunes. Green harnesses the “free” services provided by nature. The scientific literature now supports the argument that Green coastal defenses slow down waves, dissipating their power and thereby reducing coastal erosion, while providing food security and biodiversity benefits. These are ecosystem services, nature’s riches. By incorporating nature-based solutions, you can achieve multiple economic, social, and ecological benefits. The question is, how can you break up with Gray gracefully?

1. Define your “deal breakers”

Enough is enough already … how much are you really willing to put up with before you make a change? Levee breaches, flood damage, decline of critical species; homes, lives, and economies threatened. Come on, you’re better than that and Gray might be holding you back. The status quo of “building stronger” is clearly not working … it’s time to build smarter. Be sure to communicate your frustrations and take proactive steps to address the right solution for the circumstance.

2. Remember that it’s not all about you

Always be mindful that there are other stakeholders involved and everyone’s opinions should be heard. Be sure to get them all around the table to discuss options that might provide multiple benefits. Decision support tools like Coastal Resilience  or NOAA’s Sea Level Rise and Coastal Impacts Viewer can help your group visualize important information and guide the conversation to assess your local risks and identify solutions.

For example, in Puget Sound, WA, data visualization tools are being used to bring together groups that are often at odds with each other, including tribes that advocate habitat restoration to recover fish species, the agricultural community focused on maintaining productive farmland, and local governments which rely heavily on protective levee systems. Visualizing how pertinent data interact in the context of the watershed that they all share allows them to find win-win projects that can provide salmon recovery as well as flood risk reduction benefits.

3. Play the field

An infographic depicting the role that tidal marshes can play in reducing risk to a levee.
Infographic depicting the role that tidal marshes can play in reducing risk to a levee by decreasing wave energy. Click for full size image.

So perhaps you’re finally fed up with the one trick pony of Gray infrastructure. The next step is to identify which options can reduce risk while also providing social, ecological, and economic benefits. Risks and vulnerabilities vary across coastal communities, and so should adaptation and mitigation strategies. Gray may be the best option for a catastrophic storm event – of course getting out of harm’s way is the very best option – but why not try Green for less intense storms and creeping sea level rise? Or how about a hybrid approach where Gray and Green are bedfellows? Who ever said one size fits all?

The Coastal Resilience platform contains applications such as Coastal Defense, developed in coordination with the Natural Capital Project, to help investigate the role that coastal habitats play in reducing risk to shorelines and community assets. In Puget Sound, Coastal Defense is being used to evaluate the role that tidal wetlands play in reducing risk to dike infrastructure. Unlike dikes, which can erode from wave impacts and require regular maintenance, vegetated tidal wetlands not only attenuate waves, but are also self-maintaining once fully established and incur little to no long-term maintenance costs. The value of tools like Coastal Defense is that they provide a mechanism to change the perception of what defenses can be.

4. Moving on

After you’ve gotten a better idea of the options out there, you might be ready to kick Gray to the curb with confidence. You can now look to the future and start to implement solutions that you can have a long and sustainable future with. Take the money you save by not maintaining your relationship with Gray for the rest of its life and buy yourself something pretty. Also be sure to take the time to appreciate your new risk reduction strategy; swim in the clean water, enjoy the plentiful fishery, or say it looks great in that new shirt.

5. Acceptance

Breaking up is difficult, and in some cases you don’t have to completely. Perhaps you can let Gray stick around in the “friend zone.” After all, when you’re not able to get out of harm’s way, you appreciate that Gray is there to help you ride it out. But Gray and Green can share the field, and we should look for ways to see a broader picture – matching the solution with the conditions. What kind of relationship do you want? What do you hope to get out of it? Green can lead to exciting opportunities, and has an integral role to play in coastal defense. With fresh eyes, we need alternatives to traditional means, and in some cases a fresh start.

To sum it up, you don’t have to settle, you deserve a risk reduction strategy that treats you right! There are plenty of fish in the sea … so start to identify solutions that keep those fish plentiful and healthy. One way to start the search for a better match is through “online dating” with decision support tools. As communities move from thinking of overwhelming abstract issues, like what sea levels will be in 100 years, to wanting to look at more realistic local impacts, tools must evolve to address this. Tools from The Nature Conservancy and NOAA aim to help you assess your risks and identify adaptation solutions.

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