Conservation 2.0 – regulations alone won’t fix a broken earth

By Brent Fewell

I spent some quality time this week in the wonderful city of Cincinnati, home of the great WKRP radio, with a lot of tremendous folks discussing how we as a society can make meaningful progress toward protecting the environment and restoring our nation’s rivers, streams and estuaries.  This was a great week for Conservation 2.0 as Joe Whitworth of The Freshwater Trust likes to call it.  The meeting was the National Roundtable on Water Quality Trading and convened over 100 thoughtful participants, farmers, local governments, environmental groups, entrepreneurs, scientists, economists, EPA, USDA, and state regulators, to discuss the progress toward developing market-based approaches to improving water quality and restoring degraded riparian ecosystems.  I had the pleasure of helping to plan the event and offer up introductory remarks on our need to find bold, new ways to fight pollution.  Highlighted during the 2-day event were examples of successful trading programs around the country and sharing of best practices to continue to build upon the success.  I highlight below a couple such efforts that demonstrate the leaps and bounds we’ve made in helping to jump-start sustainable conservation markets.

The Applegate River, located in the heart of salmon habitat in Oregon, is impaired in part due to the warm water from the City of Medford’s rogueriverwastewater treatment plant.  In order to restore this stream to water quality standards imposed under the Clean Water Act, the City was faced with installing cooling towers to reduce temperature of its treated effluent 1 degree celsius (needed reduction of 14 million kcals) at a cost of $16M, not including the significant consumption of electricity to operate in perpetuity large refrigerators (think carbon footprint).

Well, some smart-thinking folks in the area started to second-guess whether buying a large refrigerator at the tune of $16M was the best use of tax-payer money and whether it was the most environmentally friendly option.  Lo and behold – a much better option existed.  Turns out that when you plant tens of thousands of native trees along 30 miles of river, Mother Nature does a pretty good job of cooling down those waters where salmon will thrive once again.  Get this however.  Medford, with the support of EPA and the state, and groups like the Willamette Partnership and Freshwater Trust, agreed to plant twice as many trees and restore twice as much riparian habitat than was required to comply with the law to ensure the success of the project – and then some.  So instead of purchasing 14 million kcals at a cost of $16M, Medford, using a 2-1 credit ratio, purchased 28 million kcals of conservation at a cost of only $8M.  And not only does the environment benefit from cooler water, other wildlife species will benefit from the restored habitat, and agricultural runoff will be filtered through these buffer strips reducing nitrogen and other pollutants, further improving water quality.  Twice the amount of conservation for half the price.  Plus, that $8M left over can be used for other important things in the community of Medford, like paying for teachers, police, and fixing roads.  The landowners and community love it and, for watershed efforts like this, people are forced to actually talk and work together for the common good – many people who might not ever have any need to speak or engage.  People feel good about their effort and they take pride in their community and the environment that supports it – and guess what, the critters benefit too.

Another project, the Ohio River Basin Trading Project, lead by the Jessica Fox and the Electric Power Research Institute, has embarked on establishing a three-state program aimed at market-based approaches to water quality restoration.  The first ever multi-state trading initiative in the U.S. – not bad considering just a few years ago, EPA staff would kick me under the table when I would foolishly utter the concept aloud.  Officials last year from the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana signed an agreement to work together to establish such a trading program.  EPA is now strongly supportive.  This program will be instrumental in helping to eradicate the large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by too much nutrients from a number of sources, including municipal discharges and agricultural runoff.

Projects like these are a win-win opportunity for the environment, the community, the tax-payer, and they are a net positive for many small things people of a free nation cherish.  And we need more of them.  I call this progress.  And although some contend the pace of progress barrels on like a raging turtle, this is a generational change that will take decades to occur. These leaders are helping to establish the foundation for Conservation 3.0.

Special recognition to the following contributors who made this week’s event a resounding success.

The Honorable Ben Grumbles, President of U.S. Water Alliance
The Honorable Dave White, retired Chief of Natural Resources Conservation
Andrew McElwaine, President, American Farmland Trust
Ellen Gillinsky, Senior Policy Advisor, EPA Office of Water
Kari Cohen, USDA
Dave Paylor, Director, Virginia DEQ
Joe Whitworth, President, The Freshwater Trust
Alex Johnson, The Freshwater Trust
Jessica Fox, EPRI
Carrie Sanneman, Willamette Partnership
Peter Hughes, Founder, Red Barn Trading Company
Brooks Smith, Hunton & Williams
Dr. Tim Lohner, American Electric Power
Kevin Shafer, Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
Dave Taylor, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District
Alex Echols, Sand County Foundation
Brad Klein, Environmental Law and Policy Center
Tim Joice, Kentucky Waterways Alliance
Bowden Quinn, Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter
Brent Fults, Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Land Trust
Jane Hardisty, NRCS State Conservationist, Indiana
Roger Wolf, Director of Environmental Programs, Iowa Soybean Association