How do we measure what’s most important to us? And how do we translate those values into decisions about infrastructure projects so that they can deliver a diverse set of economic, environmental, and social benefits? That’s the focus of our discussion in Season 5, Episode 4, of the Engineering With Nature® Podcast. Host Sarah Thorne and Todd Bridges, National Lead of the Engineering With Nature (EWN) Program, are pleased to welcome back to the podcast Justin Ehrenwerth, President and CEO of The Water Institute. Justin joined us back in Season 3, Episode 1 and Episode 2, in October 2021, where we talked about defining the benefits and costs of nature-based solutions (NBS) as a lever for encouraging adoption by all kinds of organizations. In this episode, we’re talking about how to measure what matters with respect to natural infrastructure.
This episode is the third in a three-part series covering what Todd characterizes as the three-legged stool that supports the advancement of NBS. The first leg—identifying opportunities for making progress with NBS—was the subject of Season 5, Episode 2, featuring a conversation with Heather Tallis and Lydia Olander who discussed priorities for NBS in the Executive Office of the President. The second leg—understanding the benefits and value of nature—was the subject of Season 5, Episode 3, where we continued our discussion with Heather Tallis who described the National Nature Assessment, which is underway to provide a full picture of the state of nature across the United States and the value of nature to people’s lives. The third leg—determining how to measure the value of NBS in infrastructure projects—is the focus of Episode 4.
This episode was recorded shortly after the national summit “Measuring What Matters” hosted by the Resilient America Program at the National Academies in Washington, DC, on November 30, 2022, in collaboration with the EWN Program and The Water Institute. Participants from a broad range of organizations came together to share their perspectives on the process and benefit of valuing nature. Reflecting on the summit, Todd says, “Of the hundreds of meetings or workshops or summits that I’ve participated in over my 30 years within the federal government, I think this event was the most impactful, the most special. It was so moving how participants contributed their understanding of the array of benefits that nature-based solutions can offer.” Justin agrees, adding, “All of us who participated continue to feel that buzz, that glow. It was more successful than we could have imagined. We had over a thousand people participating, over 100 with us in person and over 900 online, which exceeded all our expectations.”
The importance of the summit is reflected by the participation and engagement of many senior-level individuals including Brenda Mallory, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Michael Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Richard Spinrad, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences. As Justin notes, “The fact that they found the time to be there with us in person really reflects the leadership that Todd and the Corps have placed on this. Add to that, the magic of this moment—the fact that President Biden has been so clear on his directives around this topic.” Todd highlights the level of alignment demonstrated at the meeting across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors and in the world of academia. “There is a very significant amount of alignment that is encouraging on one level but also challenging on another because, when you have alignment like that, you need to deliver. You need to take advantage of that alignment. It adds a seriousness to this. There is work to do following the summit.”
Measuring and promoting nature-based solutions is a challenge. As Todd says, “How do we identify the full suite of benefits that nature-based solutions can bring to an infrastructure project? The first step is to recognize nature as providing value. In doing that, we’re looking for solutions for an approach to infrastructure development that is seeking harmony—partnering with nature—rather than controlling nature. Getting nature up front in the process of planning and design involves elevating the benefits of nature, moving consideration of those benefits forward in the project development process. It’s critical to bring this understanding into the process of project design, accepting nature as a part of the solution.”
Justin describes how he and his colleagues at The Water Institute contributed to the challenge of measurement, highlighting studies they recently completed for the Corps. The first was an historical review of the evolution of the Corps’ authorities, followed by an assessment of 150 Corps planning studies to determine how they considered nature-based solutions. “So, at the end of the day, our conclusion is that when we talk about evaluating the economics, environmental benefits, and social benefits, we have to go back to measuring what matters. The answer is not simply sharpening the scalpel. There’s more work to be done.”
Todd adds, “Converting an output into dollars is not the only way to keep score, to gauge the total value of a project. Some really important outputs can be difficult, or maybe even inappropriate, to monetize. As Mr. Connor, our Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said, ‘We know we might not be able to value everything, but we should value what we can, and that is a part of the agenda moving forward.’ Thinking about that, I was particularly struck by a statement that was made by LaKesha Hart, who directs state planning in Louisiana. She said, ‘A house is a house because people live there, not because of how much the house is worth on the market.’ That’s just one example of social effects and equity. There are a whole range of other ways that nature-based solutions contribute, including broadly environmentally, but also economically in terms of risk mitigation, whether you’re talking about flooding or drought mitigation, to name just two examples.”
Addressing the challenge of measuring these benefits includes new policy research, including exploring the implications of policy alternatives that focus on what and how measurement of benefits is being incorporated into the planning process. Justin summarizes the desired outcome: “The bottom line is to make very clear in the evaluation process that a holistic appreciation of a series of benefits and costs—over and above economics—really has the opportunity to transform. And we’ve got great science to support that transformation, and momentum. If we harness all this interest and enthusiasm, we will see some big changes in the next 18–24 months.”
Todd adds, “How you define what is a relevant value or benefit when you are developing a project informs very substantively what constitutes a solution within that project. So, what you recognize as a ‘benefit’ basically determines the outcome. That’s the reason why we’re doing all this. To produce better projects that last and that produce the array of benefits that our communities need and deserve. I am excited about what we can produce together.”