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A New Market for Water Quality

By: George Patten

President Obama summed up the City of Medford Oregon’s new program for water quality trading in a recent speech:  [these] “are the kinds of ideas that we need in this country…ideas that preserve our environment, protect our bottom line, and connect more Americans to the great outdoors.” The EPA, along with several states, has established guidelines for water quality trading system designed to allow discharge facilities facing high mitigation costs to purchase environmentally equivalent offset credits. The City of Medford has developed a water quality trading system that uses stream restoration as an offset to meet water temperature regulations on the Rogue River.

Innovative water quality trading program uses stream restoration along the Rouge River. Image courtesy of Ericmay.

The City of Medford discharges treated wastewater into the Rogue River and needed a solution to meet temperature requirements under a water temperature total maximum daily load (TMDL) criteria. This is a common problem for wastewater plants because water generally arrives at the facility warm from residences and industry, and plants must cool treated water before discharging it in streams that support aquatic life and fisheries.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) developed the framework for the Medford water quality trading program, which assigns water quality credits to restoration and aquatic habitat improvement.  The City of Medford has agreed to restore 25 miles of stream corridor over a 10-year period.  By enhancing the trees and riparian vegetation along the stream bank, there will be additional shade to cool the water. The City chose to implement this option versus onsite lagoon storage, which is difficult for geologic reasons and requires mechanical cooling of the water, which was more costly. Stream restoration will also have supplemental benefits to water quality and eliminates energy requirements and the associated cost impacts of mechanical cooling.

The City of Medford is implementing the water quality trading program through a credit system facilitated by Freshwater Trust, a non-profit organization that works with landowners to restore land, certify the restoration, and sell the credits to the City. An inventive shade-o-later tool, created by the Oregon DEQ, will be used to calculate thermal credits generated by restoration. The tool is an Excel-based, solar routing model that uses GIS indicators and field observations to estimate potential shading for the river. The credits purchased by the City of Medford include capital and operations and maintenance costs for 20 years.

Wastewater treatment plants like the one in Medford are increasingly implementing ecological solutions for water management, such as the Croton Water Filtration Plant in New York City, which uses an innovative onsite water treatment system.

Innovative onsite stormwater treatment.
Image courtesy of Great Ecology.

However, in situations where on-site means are impractical, a credit system for restoration also can provide similar and cost-effective water quality benefits. The success of these programs demonstrates the potential for other market-like ecological restoration systems which achieve the President’s goals to protect the bottom line, improve the environment, and connect people to natural spaces.


References:
Medford Water Quality Permit Moves Trading Forward. Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies. The Freshwater Trust.
Remarks by the President at Conservation Conference. Department of Interior Washington, D.C.
Profita, Cassandra. Obama: Medford Has The Right Idea. Ecotrope.
Water Quality Trading. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

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