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Reconnecting Rivers and Streams

Fresh water is the lifeblood of our landscapes. Coursing through the rivers, lakes and wetlands of the world, it sustains every society on Earth. These waterways are also linked to billions of dollars in economic productivity. But in many places, the flow of water is impaired by aging infrastructure built when there was little understanding of the water needs of rivers and streams.

It’s not just fish and other wildlife that are squeezed by these structures, but essential services for people and promising economic opportunities.

But what if we could help produce a more sustainable long-term economy by reversing those declines and restoring those areas?

More Green for Green Infrastructure

With the passage of a national economic stimulus package that will allocate as much as $7.5 billion to restore ecosystems and another $45 billion for energy conservation and new technologies, we see unprecedented opportunities to update and build green infrastructure, initiate environmental restoration projects and create new green jobs.

“There’s a backlog for many of these restoration projects,” explains Lise Hanners, the Conservancy's director of conservation for eastern North America. “Increased funding could lead to more jobs for heavy equipment operators, surveyors, engineers, ecologists, landscape architects, hydrologists and even horticulturists in nurseries that offer native seedlings and specialized plants for restoration.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, such projects support just as many or more jobs per million dollars of investment as do conventional infrastructure projects. Not only that, they produce ongoing “ecosystem services” — the tangible, cost-effective and measurable benefits to society that come from healthy natural systems.

Connecticut River Shows What’s Possible

But can nature and infrastructure really be compatible? To answer this question, many conservationists are looking to the Connecticut River for in-the-water examples of how proper planning and design can be used to ensure that new and refurbished infrastructure is wildlife-friendly.

One example is a recent study in New England that inventoried 3,600 culverts, bridges and other structures and found more than 2,000 that were barriers to aquatic life or the stream’s natural flow. In short, they found that road-stream crossings presented one of the greatest threats to these aquatic ecosystems.

But now, all new road-stream crossings in New England must be built according to standards established by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect wildlife and the stream’s natural processes. Conservancy scientists played a key role in developing these standards, working closely with the state and non-profit partners.

“It isn’t just about fish passage, it’s about the whole picture: quality of life for people, healthy fisheries and habitat for wildlife,” adds Adam Whelchel, director of conservation science in Connecticut. “By restoring rivers and ‘greening’ infrastructure, we can meet people’s needs for water and jobs while keeping natural systems intact and functioning for the future.”

Story written by: Kate Frazer, The Nature Conservancy. 

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