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Commentary: Don't forget nature in the infrastructure bill debate

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Mary Conley, The Nature Conservancy southeast marine conservation director, participated in a living shoreline project on Gold Bug Island in 2016. The project has regrown up to 70 feet of salt marsh and reversed previous erosion on the East Cooper island. Joy Brown/The Nature Conservancy

After serving 29 years as the executive director of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, I’m a big proponent of investing in infrastructure.

We need to continue upgrading pipes, service lines and treatment plants to bring clean water to our homes and businesses. Whatever form the upcoming infrastructure legislation in Congress takes, we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact.

But here’s something else we shouldn’t lose sight of: We also need to invest in nature.

It is much easier and cheaper to deliver plentiful, high-quality drinking water to our taps when the water entering the plant is already relatively clean. It’s not rocket science, but it is water science.

Science also shows us that the best way to keep water clean in our lakes and rivers is to surround them with forests that filter storm runoff before it reaches our water sources.

Dean Moss

Dean Moss

Which brings me back to infrastructure. We will need to update our pipes and plants to keep up with a growing water demand.

But we can reduce those costs by also investing in natural infrastructure, meaning protecting land and caring for forests to keep our drinking water clean; building and protecting oyster reefs that buffer our coasts from erosion; and planting rain gardens and community green spaces that slow and absorb flash floods and heavy rains.

As a trustee for The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina, I’ve seen firsthand how well natural infrastructure can work.

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The Savannah River Clean Water Fund, a partnership formed among water municipalities to protect land upstream and water quality downstream, recently invested $534,125 in the protection of the 13,868-acre Groton Uplands.

A living shoreline built by the conservancy in 2016 has regrown up to 70 feet of salt marsh on Gold Bug Island, reversing previous erosion. In Conway and Andrews, officials are in the planning stages of reducing flash flooding by reconnecting waterways and planting green spaces.

Natural infrastructure also comes with incredible side benefits. Healthy forests increase populations of songbirds and wildlife. Oysters filter our ocean water (and are delicious fried). Community green spaces are a place for us to exercise, celebrate birthdays and walk our dogs.

Investing in conservation also can boost the local economy by creating jobs and lowering flood insurance and other costs for families.

We are fortunate in South Carolina to have representatives and senators in Washington with the clout to make nature a priority in upcoming debates over infrastructure legislation.

U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, along with our new Lowcountry U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, sit on committees charged with making decisions about our country’s infrastructure.

I urge them to represent our state well by investing in our abundant, cost-effective and beneficial natural infrastructure alongside bridges and roads.

Dean Moss retired as executive director of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority in 2015. He was one of four appointees to the Bi-State Commission on the Savannah River and is a member of the Savannah River Maritime Commission, a board member of The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina and the Savannah River Clean Water Fund and a founding board member of the Port Royal Sound Foundation.

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