Making Natural Infrastructure Solutions Happen

Almost all planners know from training and experience that the path from idea to implementation can often be fraught with difficulty. The best environmental concepts can be particularly hard to explain both to elected and appointed officials and to the general public, even when support exists for the general idea of a healthy environment. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

This is precisely why APA has often sponsored or cosponsored workshops and symposia to explore the obstacles to making good ideas happen. For example, in June 2014, the APA Hazards Planning Center worked with the U.S. Forest Service to host a one-day discussion in Washington, D.C., on Hazardous Tree Management and Post-Disaster Recovery. Bringing together foresters, federal officials, and subject matter experts helped illuminate obstacles and opportunities related to saving more of the urban forest during the cleanup that follows many natural disasters.

Wetland restoration is another area of promising environmental activity that nonetheless often faces regulatory and other obstacles. Among the challenges is the need to ensure that a proposed restoration project is in fact well considered and likely to produce the desired results. Even when that is the case, however, the regulatory process may not always facilitate the best solution, in part because the regulations in place may never have anticipated the types of actions being proposed.

Wetland restoration is seldom a simple undertaking in any case, but it can have substantial benefits for communities and their surrounding regions, including reduced stormwater runoff, better floodplain management, and increased water quality. The question is how to circumvent potential obstacles to achieve the desired result.

With that in mind, APA collaborated with the Association of State Wetland Managers and the Association of State Floodplain Managers to arrange a November 29, 2016, workshop in Washington, D.C., to explore these topics in some depth. The workshop — hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts — brought together not only staff of these four organizations but also representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and numerous national organizations.

Add to that list several invited presenters of case studies that explored specific common issues in permitting for wetland restoration projects. By design, "Overcoming Policy and Permitting Challenges to Implementing Natural Infrastructure Solutions," a Natural Floodplain Functions Alliance workshop, used the case studies to highlight those issues.

The first presentation, by Rob Evans, state floodplain manager in Vermont, dealt with issues related to permitting approvals for dam removal, which might ordinarily trigger a need for map revision of the flood insurance rate map for the river or stream in question. Evans showed how Vermont managed to sidestep that question with the Cox Brook Dam Removal Project, while making clear that the issue can require significant investments of time and money to achieve a positive result — something that may cause some communities to think twice before proceeding. Later, Eileen Shader of American Rivers presented a different case related to the Shuford dam removal in North Carolina.

Ted LaGrange, of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, presented a very different scenario. It involved wetland restoration on private lands in what is already a highly altered, largely agricultural environment, where projects need to take account of the wishes of private landowners. The result was a dive into the requirements of nationwide permits under the Clean Water Act with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They also covered the impact of permitting delays related to requests for additional information, which can frustrate private landowners interested in undertaking such projects.

Ultimately, the goal of presenting the case studies was to set the stage for an afternoon discussion of "Current Efforts and New Opportunities to Revise Existing Policies and Programs to Leverage Natural Infrastructure Solutions" and a closing discussion of facilitating natural infrastructure solutions. There was virtual unanimity among the 50 people in the room that the initiative started with this workshop needs to be continued, and ongoing discussions among the project partners may yield further efforts in this direction. Both the APA Hazards Planning Center and Green Communities Center will continue to participate in additional work to identify opportunities and solutions.

Top image: Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Flickr user U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

About the Author
Jim Schwab, FAICP, is manager of the APA Hazards Planning Center and was a participant for APA in the workshop. He may be reached at

January 17, 2017

By James Schwab, FAICP