A local environmental group is developing a market-based approach to the enduring challenge of conserving freshwater habitat.
Joe Whitworth, president of Portland-based The Freshwater Trust, said the new environmental market would assess monetary values to natural elements that improve river and stream habitat, similar to how carbon credits are used to offset environmental costs. The goal is to encourage the restoration of rivers and streams throughout the state without resorting to the usual legal battles.
Whitworth described the plan during a day-long forum at Portland State University organized around the theme of facing a future of climate change-related challenges through collaboration rather than harsh regulations and combative lawsuits.
Facing a room of farmers, water managers and ranchers who 15 years ago might have said unkind things about his efforts to protect salmon under the Endangered Species Act, Whitworth sheepishly echoed the atmosphere of collaboration when he said that “we have to get past our past in order to get to our future.”
One factor that Whitworth spoke to that has been a barrier to progress is the disconnect between the many governmental agencies that oversee matters of natural resource management. “There are only 16 ways to fix a river,” he joked, noting that in some cases you have to work with over a dozen different agencies on a given restoration project. “We needed a translator…to complete projects.”
In order to get past this hurdle and effectively develop an “Environmental Market,” The Freshwater Trust developed a software program called “StreamBank”that streamlines the permitting process and, according to Whitworth, cuts 70% of a given conservation project's completion time. The software acts as a sort of Turbo Tax for the permitting and monitoring of a project that allows restoration workers to make sure they meet regulatory demands. The photo above, provided by Freshwater Trust, shows a typical restoration project in Oregon.
Of Oregon’s 115,000 stream miles, 85,000 need help, Whitworth said. To meet restoration needs, he said that instead of building multi-million dollar cooling towers to cool treated water, businesses or municipalities that discharge into waterways could help plant trees along waterways to cool the water and improve native fish habitat. The Environmental Market, akin to a carbon trading market, would help do this by rewarding landowners for every “unit of good” they produce, units that could then be purchased by a business or municipality that discharges into a waterway to offset the habitat harming effects of dumping warm, treated water into river habitats.
Here’s a rough idea of how it would work:
- A regulated entity, say a wastewater treatment facility, contracts with The Freshwater Trust to generate offset credits. The Freshwater Trust secures all upfront private financing to pay for the planning and implementation of the conservation efforts.
- The Freshwater Trust and local restoration professionals recruit landowners to implement a conservation plan. The restoration professionals use The Freshwater Trust’s StreamBank platform to help streamline the permitting as well as the monitoring process that begins with a three to five year baseline study.
- Credit calculation is performed by third party. Then The Willamette Partnership, a coalition of conservation, city, business, farm, and science leaders, oversees the verification, certification and registration processes.
- Once registered, the regulated entity can purchase the offset credits. Revenue goes towards repaying loans, making regular payments to participating landowners, and paying for long term monitoring and maintenance.
Whitworth said that four pilot projects backed by United States Department of Agriculture loan guarantees are under development in different regions in the state and that he hopes that one day such a market-based solution to conservation could be scaled nationally. “This is going to happen…because we have the tools to make it happen,” he said.
Peter Beland is an associate writer for Oregon Business.