The World Economic Forum ranked the water crisis as one of the top threats facing society after listing it as the No. 1 threat in 2015. Water was also central to the Paris climate talks, while the United Nations dedicated Sustainable Development Goal No. 6 to water and sanitation and the Sioux people of North America put the previously unknown town of Standing Rock on the global map by standing up to protect their water rights.
Fortunately, scores of efforts are underway to meet the challenge and the Electric Power Research Institute started off the year with a review of its Water Prize-winning Ohio River Basin Trading project. A January webinar outlined a multi-pronged strategy that includes promotional videos and impact investors rather than donor-based finance.
Using the project’s funding, Midwest farmers such as Ken Merrick have been able to implement conservation activities to reduce fertilizer and animal waste from running into nearby waterways that flow to the Gulf of Mexico. Merrick, who operates Conser Run farm in Ohio, added a storage area for manure and a buffer strip where his cows only occasionally are allowed to graze.
He also lets trees and grasses grow along the creek running through his farm, which mops up excess pollution before it reaches the water.
The program is still in a pilot phase but, if it evolves as planned, Ohio River farmers can quantify their pollution reductions and generate stewardship credits using a market-based approach called water quality trading. They then can sell these credits to power plants and wastewater treatment facilities interested in meeting sustainability goals or to comply with regulatory requirements.
The Trading Debate
Water quality trading made headlines in 2016 after an organization called Food and Water Watch penned a paper in late 2015 condemning the entire practice and re-labeling it “pollution trading.” The group charged that it undermines the Clean Water Act (CWA) and puts U.S. waterways at great risk. Advocates of the practice dismissed the paper in August, arguing trading is one of several tools states and utilities can use to improve water quality.
“Trading isn’t a silver bullet. It’s not a panacea,” Brad Klein, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said. “But we need to get on top of this issue of water pollution, and water quality trading may be another arrow in the quiver.”