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Water-quality trading surfaces in Washington

The Washington State Conservation Commission is studying whether farmers could earn and sell pollution-reduction credits
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on November 1, 2017 8:06AM

Bertrand Creek in northwest Washington flows past vegetation in an agricultural area of Whatcom County. The Washington State Conservation Commission is working on a report on whether farmers could earn and then sell credits for taking extra steps to improve water quality.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

Bertrand Creek in northwest Washington flows past vegetation in an agricultural area of Whatcom County. The Washington State Conservation Commission is working on a report on whether farmers could earn and then sell credits for taking extra steps to improve water quality.

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A Washington dairy industry official said Tuesday that he hopes an upcoming state report will rekindle interest in rewarding farmers who take extra steps to protect water quality.

Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said water-quality trading, in which farmers earn and then sell pollution-reduction credits to downstream industries and sewer plants, could help businesses, cities, fish and farms.

“I’m tickled to death we’re having this discussion,” he said. “It has so much potential promise. That’s why it’s an idea that hasn’t died.”

The Washington State Conservation Commission is circulating a draft of the report, which names basins where water-quality trading might work best, but also highlights obstacles to such a program.

The underlying idea is that it’s cheaper to reduce pollution by managing the land than updating technology to treat effluent. The Environmental Protection Agency and USDA embrace the concept, and so does the Washington Department of Ecology. Trades, however, depend on matching facilities that need help to comply with discharge permits with reliable land projects.

“So far, we haven’t found that situation where everything aligns,” Ecology special assistant on water quality Kelly Susewind said.

The obstacles cited in the report include the fact that Washington’s pollution-control law already bars farmers from releasing anything that tends to cause pollution into the water .

Bruce Wishart, a lobbyist for environmental groups, said it may be hard for conservation groups to support water-quality trading for that reason.

“Really, technically, there’s nothing farmers can trade,” he said. “This is a very significant difference between Washington state and some of the other states where water-trading schemes have been put in place.”

Gordon agreed that reconciling a program and the state pollution-control law “would be the big challenge,” but said that water-quality trading could encourage farmers to take extraordinary measures, such as planting trees to shade streams or using new technology to extract phosphorous from manure.

Ecology outlined in 2010 how a program could work, particularly to reduce phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment. “We think there is room there,” Susewind said. “The bottom line is, if the water is cleaner, we’re all happy.”

Ecology must concur with the conservation commission’s final report. Susewind said the department is reviewing the draft.

The report’s lead author, the conservation commission’s habitat coordinator, Brian Cochrane, said the draft was “a conversation starter.”

“It was my hope to identify some of the barriers and focus our efforts on going forward,” he said.

According to the report, water-quality trading would work best in places where the supply and demand for credits were roughly equal.

A program probably wouldn’t work in Puget Sound, where industries and cities outnumber farms. The credits would be more expensive than updating pollution-control technology, according to the report.

In other places, particularly in rural Eastern Washington, farms outnumber industries, so the credits probably wouldn’t pay for producers.

In a few places — such as the Chehalis, Yakima and Spokane basins — a balance between farms and industries could create a balanced market, according to the report.

Online

A copy of the report can be found at scc.wa.gov/wqt-1017/



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