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By Jim Howe

Water sustains life. Yet as we saw with Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, water can sometimes be dangerous and even life-threatening.

As we celebrate World Water Day today and think about the many benefits we derive from fresh water here in Buffalo, it’s time to develop perspective on natural events driven by extreme weather and a changing climate. How do we assure that nature’s way of collecting, storing and delivering the water we need also protects our communities, homes, businesses and food system from the devastating impacts of major storms and floods? How do we strike the right balance with nature?

Clearly, we have and will rely upon engineering and technology to provide some of the answers. But as we seek solutions, a good place to start is with nature itself.

Consider the Great Lakes, which contain 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. Our “natural infrastructure,” including wetlands, floodplains, forests and other native habitats, can serve as a first line of defense to protect people and property from the damages of water while holding it in storage. Nature designed them that way: An acre of healthy wetland can store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yet in too many places we have eliminated those valuable services.

Protecting and restoring our natural infrastructure will not stop rivers from flooding or fully protect us from every severe storm. Such actions will, however, help reduce the risks to the people living along rivers, lakes, flood-prone lowlands and coasts.

And protection from storms and floods is just one of many benefits we get from investing in natural infrastructure. Healthy lands and waters are also the backbone of agriculture, commercial fishing, forestry and outdoor recreation industries. They support millions of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity in the Buffalo area, throughout the region and nationwide.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds dozens of projects in New York that are helping restore natural infrastructure. My organization, the Nature Conservancy, is using these funds to prevent the spread of hydrilla and other aquatic invasive plants in Lake Erie and throughout the Great Lakes basin that can cost millions of dollars in removal and management expenses. We’re also using initiative funds to figure out how to best sustain our lake shores’ natural bodyguards – our wetlands, dunes and natural shorelines.

Investing in natural infrastructure through the federal initiative and New York’s Environmental Protection Fund is an investment in people – in our safety, our health and our livelihoods. Keeping these programs strong protects the lands and waters we need for life.

Jim Howe is director of the Nature Conservancy’s Central & Western New York Chapter.