Water Cap And Trade? Coming Soon To A Watershed Near You

dry-waterOne of the most innovative initiatives I learned about at last week’s Corporate Water Footprinting Conference (Dec. 2-3, 2009) was the Water Restoration Certificates (WRC’s) mechanism created by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. At this point, it is the nation’s first voluntary water restoration marketplace.  So how does it work? The clearest description comes straight from the foundation’s website.

“WRCs come from rivers and streams where there’s been very little water. That’s because water laws in the western U.S. allow property owners to take a certain amount of water from these water sources, but in many cases, the rights to withdraw water exceed the total amount of water in the river or stream, particularly in late summer. These laws also mandate that property owners use their allotted water or risk forfeiting their water rights forever. So of course, landowners will withdraw all of their water, whether they need it or not. And withdrawing all that water leaves many streams completely dry or with so little water that they can’t support fish, wildlife, and recreation. BEF WRCs are designed to give landowners a choice in how they use their water. WRCs are a voluntary, market-based program that provides economic incentives for water rights holders to leave water in critically dewatered ecosystems. Quite simply, landowners are paid to keep water in stream.”

“BEF WRCs are a measurable and effective way for companies and individuals to take responsibility for their water use. Each BEF WRC that is purchased represents 1,000 gallons of water that will be returned to critically dewatered rivers and streams. By leaving water in-stream where it’s protected and cannot be withdrawn for any other use, WRCs help these critically dewatered rivers and streams become healthy and flowing again. When BEF WRCs are purchased, the restored water is officially registered and available for view in the Markit Environmental Registry. Once it has been verified that the water has been restored, the WRC is retired so it can’t be sold, traded or double counted. To ensure that BEF WRCs produce real environmental benefits, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation reviews each proposed BEF WRC project, selecting and certifying those with the greatest potential to add water where it’s most critically needed.”

Each WRC represents a 1000-gallon unit of water restoration that is standardized, inventoried, and ready for purchase. BEF currently has three WRC ongoing projects: one in Montana, and two in Oregon. These states were chosen because their legal definition of the “beneficial use” of water includes taking care of the watershed, unlike the definition in most other states, including California, where leaving water in the river is not considered a beneficial use.  Customers who have invested in the water restoration credits include the Bullitt Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and WhiteWave Foods.

Imagine…property owners demanding a market-based mechanism for water rights that is better for their bottom lines and also results in water restoration. Now that’s what I call a water win/win, 1000-gallon WRC units at a time.

David Lewbin

8 responses

  1. More importantly, how about changing the words and terminologies too? Some states get away with sustainability and stuff by merely using fancy words and stuff. Nothing adverse is happening to the state of the planet. All because of vagueness and word politics.

  2. If someone else has a water right downstream that wasn't getting water, but can now take their water because a WRC was purchased, what is gained? In this case this appears to be just a transfer of water paid for by private entities looking for some “green points”. Eventually, I guess the WRC's will help the stream flow situation once enough of them are bought. Either way, getting someone else to pay for your water solutions is a cool trick, though. I agree with daniglaser – just change the law. But this is way easier, so I see a groundwater corollary coming soon.

  3. WAB, the WRC program is designed specifically to address the very real concern you raise. The program only contracts with senior water rights holders. These folks can protect the water from junior water rights holders under law in the states in which we work. Thanks for the great point.

    Regarding “just changing the law:” It is important to understand that water law is very complex politically. The landowners we work with have a legal right to the water and “changing the law” so that they no longer have the water right will simply antagonize people and polarize the conversation. The WRC program is designed to work in collaboration with, rather than in conflict with, all participants in the community.

    I hope this helps. We certainly appreciate the thoughtful questions.

    Rob Harmon – Bonneville Environmental Foundation

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