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U.S. and Netherlands team up on the topic of water

Institute for Water Resources
Published Oct. 27, 2022
Updated: Oct. 27, 2022
Engineering with Nature

The California dredges the new navigation channel formed on the eastern side of Horshoe Bend Island. This project was selected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District as a placement option for dredged shoal material. The island was self-designed by the strategic placement of sediment on the Atchafalaya River, allowing the river’s energy to disperse the sediment ⸺ another excellent example of harnessing natural systems and processes to engineer with nature. The project resulted in numerous engineering and environmental benefits, including a reduced need for dredging and increased habitat for a variety of species.

ALEXANDRIA, VA – (Oct. 27, 2022) Implementing nature-based engineering solutions is a growing field, but it’s not yet a mainstream practice. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Rijkswaterstaat, Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management are hoping to change that.

Working under a memorandum of understanding, the organizations are collaborating on mainstreaming Nature-Based Solutions, which is the sustainable management and use of natural features and processes to tackle socio-environmental challenges. USACE has several partnerships on this topic, but the exchange with Rijkswaterstaat brings lessons learned from a country with extensive experiences in using nature to protect against climate change.

“The Dutch are excellent at engineering with nature,” said Guillermo Mendoza, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources (IWR) International Program Manager. “Due to the country’s geographical placement along multiple river deltas and floodplains, the Netherlands has been battling coastal flooding for centuries. Their engineers bring a lot to the table, and we hope to leverage their insights and innovations as we as build upon solutions together.”

As part of the collaboration, IWR, located in Alexandria, Va., is hosting Matthijs Boersema from Rijkswaterstaat, who began a two-year employee exchange Sept. 11. Boersema works for the Dutch equivalent to the Institute for Water Resources and is also slated to continue working as a project manager of European Union-funded Nature-Based Solutions projects.

“There’s much our respective organizations have accomplished individually on this topic. I look forward to participating in mutual capacity building activities, along with the integration of Rijkswaterstaat and USACE comparison case studies,” Boersema said. “This two-year time frame will give us an opportunity to connect European Union and U.S. activities as relates to Nature-Based Solutions,” Boersema said.

A key area of exploration for the partners includes figuring out how to make nature-based engineering a mainstream practice. There are multiple challenges to attaining this goal, to include addressing increased costs due to expensive supplies, transporting materials, added time or engineering guidance and associated analysis of the life-cycle costs and benefits. USACE conducts cost-benefit analysis on projects prior to construction and can also factor in environmental and social justice considerations. But according to Mindy Simmons, Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the formula isn’t cut and dry.

“You can’t compare ‘average annual habitat units’ to the dollars and cents that we calculate for the benefits and costs of projects motivated by conventional economic outputs,” Simmons said during an Oct. 21, 2021 podcast discussion hosted by USACE Engineering With Nature leads. “They’re different ‘currencies’ and neither approach is a good way of accounting for the types of benefits that we typically associate with nature-based solutions, which would include things like flood storage created by a wetland, or health benefits to a disadvantaged community by using an Engineering with Nature approach versus a sea wall.”

This is where USACE has been working to drive the conversation about the value of Engineering with Nature that goes beyond the dollar amount.

“It’s an important conversation right now because our mission is the secure our nation, energize our economy and reduce disaster risk. To do this properly, we need make sure we consider underserved communities. Environmental justice and climate change are inextricably linked,” Mendoza said. “Environmental justice is important because it ties underserved communities to our mission. It allows everyone to be involved in the decisions that impact their lives. It’s a complex topic, but by jointly undertaking research activities with partners like Rijkswaterstaat, we mutually support our respective organizational goals and move closer to a meaningful solution.”

In addition to collaboration on the topic of nature-based solutions, USACE and Rijkswaterstaat are also exploring other areas of focus to include levee safety, navigation infrastructure, storm surge barriers, and disaster management. Emerging topics of interest include sustainability, asset management, and digitalization.