U.S. Army Corps of Engineers selects Water Institute to analyze policies and procedures to better quantify environmental and social benefits for nature-based solutions

Posted on April 20, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. (April 14, 2021) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Engineering With Nature (EWN®) initiative has selected The Water Institute of the Gulf to analyze how the federal benefit-cost analysis, used to select projects for construction, can more fully account for nature-based project benefits to the economy, environment and our communities.

Currently, the benefit-cost analysis (BCA) places a significant emphasis on the dollar value of the properties a proposed project would protect (in the case of flood risk management projects). However, the science of quantifying the environmental and social benefits of nature-based solutions has increased substantially over the years, and if applied, could provide a more complete assessment of how such nature-based solutions complement and enhance traditional infrastructure projects.

“Delivering infrastructure to sustain our communities, economy and environment calls upon us to innovate, modernize and even revolutionize our approach to infrastructure development. Partnering WITH nature is a vital part of delivering those solutions in the 21st century,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the USACE, in his foreword to the recently published Engineering With Nature Atlas Volume 2.

Through this applied policy research project, the Water Institute will work closely with USACE staff to consider how to best evaluate and consider the full range of economic, environmental, and social benefits that nature-based solutions provide. Specific consideration will be given to instances in which nature-based solutions are strategically designed to work with conventional approaches using rock, concrete, and steel. For example, when a concrete flood wall is designed to include an expansive reef and marsh in front of it, the wall provides flood protection benefits during storms while the reef and marsh system reduce the power of waves, self-adjusts to rising seas, captures carbon, improves water quality, and provides recreational opportunities.

“Due to decades of work from collaborators around the world, the science of quantifying and monetizing environmental and social benefits has dramatically advanced. We are excited by the opportunity to build on these advancements to ensure the full range of benefits are considered in the BCA process,” said Justin Ehrenwerth, the Water Institute president and CEO. “The Corps of Engineers has a proud history of Engineering With Nature and we are honored to work closely with our colleagues across the Corps to collaboratively develop practical tools that support measuring this full range of benefits.”

In support of USACE, the Water Institute, led by Ehrenwerth and Jordan Fischbach, Ph.D., who joined the Institute in March as the Director of Planning and Policy Research, will review current policies and practices related to the BCA. The Water Institute will then work with the USACE to identify and evaluate a number of completed Corps planning studies to identify opportunities to advance future policy and practice for quantifying the environmental and social benefits of proposed nature-based solutions. The Water Institute will consider factors that may have contributed to limiting inclusion of natural infrastructure as well as benefits that may not have been fully captured by past practice.

“We have moved beyond measuring resilience and protection as simply how much concrete can protect how much in property value,” said Fischbach. “While engineers can, and do, design projects that incorporate nature-based and traditional approaches, if the federal government doesn’t have a mechanism to recognize the benefits provided by these nature-based projects, they won’t get built.”

Based on insights gathered in analyzing the selected Chief’s Reports, the Water Institute will perform a broad policy analysis of the environmental and social benefits provided by nature-based measures to inform future approaches and project selection. As part of this effort, the Water Institute will organize an Engineering With Nature Technical Review Summit in Washington, D.C. to bring together government, nonprofit, academic and private sector collaborators to contribute to the effort.

In conjunction with this project, the Water Institute is pleased to welcome two new members to our team: Susan B. Hughes joins the Water Institute as Senior Planning Policy Advisor and Thomas Hughes joins the team as Senior Economic Policy Advisor.

Susan Hughes is a water resources planner with 33 years of planning and policy experience at the USACE district, division, and headquarters levels. She has a proven track record of leading multiple successful change initiatives at the national level and has 15 years of lead planner and project manager experience at the district level. Hughes oversaw the development of new planning policies and procedures that encouraged incorporation of risk-informed decision making and led the development of a web-based toolkit that provides an actionable roadmap for successful implementation of SMART planning.

Thomas Hughes is an economist who brings 30 years of water resources planning experience, including 15 years evaluating economic output of water resource projects with the USACE Baltimore District. Hughes has played a leading role in recent economic policy guidance updates related to evaluating a full range of benefits including both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. He has collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, White House Council of Economic Advisors and Office of Management and Budget relating to the development of new procedures of fully evaluating the economic benefits associated with inland navigation projects.

“Susan Hughes and Thomas Hughes bring decades of policy and economic experience to the Water Institute as we collaborate with the Corps of Engineers in enhancing the quantification of environmental and social benefits,” Ehrenwerth said. “I’m very excited to welcome these remarkable experts to our growing team who have such a deep understanding of the USACE.”

About The Water Institute of the Gulf

The Water Institute is an independent, non-profit, applied research institution advancing science and developing integrated methods to solve complex environmental and societal challenges. The Institute helps communities thoughtfully prepare for an uncertain future. For more information, visit www.thewaterinstitute.org.

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