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Water quality trading addresses freshwater problems with economic, environmental unity

By Joe Whitworth

The drought is serving notice that water is a scarce and precious resource coming under serious pressure. This is true even in years of no drought. Right now, if all the issues facing freshwater ecosystems are the size of Yankee Stadium, our collective ability to address those issues — everybody working everywhere in conservation — is about the size of a baseball.

Environmental pioneers dealt well with the issues of their day, but the tools they built only got us so far. We need the next generation: tools that build on success but also recognize the limitations. Today, more than a third of the 3.6 million stream miles in this country are designated as impaired under the Clean Water Act. Under the Endangered Species Act, we have listed 28 types of salmon and have recovered none — zero. In a very real sense, the environmental war is over and the greens won, but the victories have come mostly on paper. They need to translate to real results on the ground.

Baseline legal protections are the start, but if we expect a functional environment, we can’t just hold the line there — holding the line by itself is losing. We need to restore our natural systems faster than we degrade them. To do this, we must add to our basic tool kit a market-based, quantified framework that lets us fully account for our actions and create environmental gain.

We can do this right now through water quality trading, as noted recently by President Barack Obama. Here in Oregon, for example, the city of Medford was returning treated wastewater to the river, but the wastewater was too warm. This is a common problem. Historically, the town’s solution had been to buy expensive cooling structures and equipment, which took badly needed money away from city services. Instead, Medford decided to purchase water quality credits generated from streamside trees planted on nearby farms and ranches — a program that will help cool the water at a fraction of the cost.

Now Medford is in compliance with the Clean Water Act, ratepayers will save $8 million, more than 100 local restoration jobs are being created and landowners are getting paid for growing “bushels of nature.”

There are literally thousands of permit holders in America like the city of Medford that must address their wastewater effects. The Medford model has the potential to radically accelerate the pace and scale of ecosystem restoration.

Water quality trading is an affordable way to address America’s freshwater problems today. The idea that we can address these problems by simply stopping pollution or reducing consumption is foolish. Consumption is up, not down. Population is exploding. Growing impacts on freshwater are inevitable, and so we must offset these for ecological gain. In other words, we must create a system whereby one unit of environmental bad costs two units of environmental good. We need gain. And science has progressed to where we can now do this in an efficient, cost-effective and quantified way.

Everywhere, cities are getting letters from the Environmental Protection Agency saying they must comply with new caps on water temperature, nitrogen and phosphorous. We want them to comply in a smart and affordable way. Yesterday, it was environment versus the economy. From here on out, we need both.

Let me explain.

When the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, regulators focused on toxins, heavy metals and the cleanup of rivers so polluted that they literally caught fire, just as Ohio’s Cuyahoga River did in 1969. Essentially, it served as counterpoint to an economy that had overreached.

And while we no longer see flames, our rivers are still burning. It’s just that water quality regulators are now focused on that broader, trickier stuff, such as river temperature, nitrogen, phosphorous and water quantity.

Despite four decades of environmental effort, and because we all like cheap food, the Mississippi River has become so choked with excess fertilizers and runoff that it annually gives birth to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined — an area the size of 10 Deepwater Horizon oil spills. And because cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas take their cut first, the Colorado River — once strong enough to carve the Grand Canyon from stone — no longer reaches the sea.

These outcomes are the result of an economy and an environment that are not integrated; they cannot effectively understand each other. Over time, that’s a loser for us all.

The water quality trading model creates for the first time a lingua franca between the economy and the environment. With this, the two biggest forces in the biosphere can now do business together, rather than just fight.

Joe Whitworth is president of The Freshwater Trust, which is based in Portland.

Source:  http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2012/08/water_quality_trading_addresse.html

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