Massachusetts has received, but not yet spent, nearly $ 5 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed earlier this year. State and local leaders are still thinking about what to do with this windfall.
As the former head of a state environmental agency that helped allocate equally large federal funds in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, I have some advice.
Investing in “nature-based” solutions – such as restoring wetlands and removing inactive dams to reduce the risk of flooding – would offer one of the best returns. These investments in infrastructure mitigate the consequences of climate change. They also create and maintain jobs – and have the potential to protect and support historically underserved communities.
After enduring three tropical storms and record-breaking heat waves this summer, New Englanders don’t need to remember the dangers and financial burden posed by extreme weather conditions. Hurricane Ida caused up to $ 8 billion in damage to insured property across the Northeast. The floods crippled transport networks. The high winds caused power outages lasting several days.
Stifling temperatures and poor air quality from fossil fuel pollution are also wreaking havoc on human health, especially in communities that have been neglected or marginalized. Extreme heat, for example, has been the leading cause of weather-related deaths over the past three decades.
Nature-based infrastructure can help mitigate these threats. Consider the benefits of reconnecting rivers to their natural floodplains so that floodwaters have a place to go. Eighty-five percent of the almost 3,000 dams in the state no longer have an active function. About 300 of them were considered “high risk”, which means they are at risk of rape and are close to communities.
Dams fragment running water and thereby increase its temperature and reduce sediment transport and oxygen levels. This adversely affects the quality of the water for humans and wildlife. Removing these structures would promote the long-term health of the planet, protect communities from damage, and save money that might otherwise have been spent on disaster response.
Or consider the benefits of restoring wetlands – areas where water covers the ground or is just below the surface. Wetlands play an invaluable role in preventing storm damage, filtering our drinking water, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and supporting biodiversity. Replanting native trees and plants along our shores also helps prevent erosion and flooding.
These natural “ecosystem services”, as they are called, “are difficult to replace and more often than not very expensive to design,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA estimates that the wetlands around Boston alone provide more than $ 42,000 of flood protection per acre.
In addition to improving public safety, these investments also create or expand green spaces that become refuges for wildlife and provide places for people to enjoy nature.
They also create jobs. Every million dollars spent on nature-based solutions creates the equivalent of 12.5 full-time jobs, according to the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration. Coastal habitat restoration projects can support up to 30 jobs for every million dollars invested.
Many of these jobs do not require graduate degrees and may provide workforce development opportunities for members of frontline communities, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
Thanks to the Baker Legislature and Administration, Massachusetts is already a national leader in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Over 90% of Commonwealth municipalities are enrolled in the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program. They followed a local planning process to prioritize action projects to manage the impacts of climate change. The new funds available can greatly intensify this work.
The American Rescue Plan Act has given Massachusetts a unique opportunity to protect our environment, stimulate our economy, and make our society more just and equitable. By investing in nature-based solutions, our leaders can achieve all three critical goals at the same time.
Deb Markowitz is the Massachusetts State Director for The Nature Conservancy.