Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Transformation of Restoration

KlamBlog Editor's Note: 

In response to an e-mail reacting to one of his posts, Tom Stokely (the editor of "env-trinity digest") - recently invited KlamBlog's editor and chief writer Felice Pace to share an article he wrote some time ago about the failure of watershed and fisheries restoration to accomplish their stated objectives, that is, to actually restore water quality and fisheries. That article - "Humility or Hubris - Restoration at the Crossroads" - and another on the same topic - "The End of Restoration?" - are now available to e-v digest and KlamBlog followers on the web courtesy of Dropbox at the following link. The articles explore why over 30 years of watershed and fisheries "restoration" has created a "restoration economy" but has not been effective in accomplishing restoration goals. 

Since Felice wrote those articles, however, the transformation of restoration programs and projects from voluntary activities independent of regulatory issues into a substitute for regulation limiting water pollution has progressed. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state agencies charged with implementing the Clean Water Act - including both Oregon and California - are now poised to approve the use of restoration projects as "offsets" to polluted discharges, thereby substituting restoration projects for strict Clean Water Act compliance. In the article below, Felice updates his analysis of the ongoing transformation of watershed and fisheries restoration programs and projects. 

When restoration projects are used as a substitute for controlling or eliminating the discharge of pollution, they are called "offsets". Felice examines the use of "offsets" as a substitute for requiring those discharging pollution to control, reduce or eliminate it. And he asks whether "offset" schemes will be effective in restoring our rivers and streams. 

Felice's update on "The Transformation of Restoration" is timely. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) has begun work on a Clean Water Act permit for the Tule Lake Irrigation District (TID). Industrial Agriculture in the Tule Lake Area is responsible for roughly 25% of the pollution impairing Klamath River water quality and fisheries. 

TID's polluted wastewater is pumped into Tule Lake, then to Lower Klamath 
National Wildlife Refuge, the Klamath Straits and into the Klamath River

Delivered to the Klamath River just north of the California-Oregon border via the Klamath Straits, agricultural pollution feeds and exacerbates toxic algae production in PacifiCorp's Klamath River reservoirs and kills tens of thousands of juvenile salmon every year.  State water quality officials could try to substitute taxpayer-funded restoration above Upper Klamath Lake for requiring TID to control and limit polluted discharges to the Klamath River.

In KlamBlog's view, substituting taxpayer funded restoration for Clean Water Act compliance will result in the Klamath River remaining polluted and Klamath Salmon remaining at risk. Therefore, we urge readers to contact North Coast Water Board Executive officer Matt Saint John (matt.st.john@waterboards.ca.gov). Urge Mr. St. John not to substitute taxpayer funded restoration for control of polluted discharges. Tell him that TID's pollution needs to be controlled at its source in order to meet water quality standards in Tule Lake, the Klamath Straits and the Klamath River.


                    The Transformation of Restoration
                                  by Felice Pace               

Pollution trading - the use of "offsets" as a substitute for directly controlling or eliminating pollution - has been around for decades with respect to air pollution and especially as a response to climate change inducing atmospheric carbon. In the classic example, a power plant or industrial air polluter chooses to "offset" the discharge of carbon dioxide through its smokestack with a project in a different location which removes an equivalent amount of carbon from the air. The owners of a power plant in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area might, for example, pay to protect a forest in West Africa (or in the Sierra Nevada Mountains) which would otherwise be cut down. The carbon stored in the protected forest "offsets" the power plant's carbon emissions and the plant is considered to be in compliance with air pollution control laws even while it continues to put the same amount of carbon into the LA air.

Urban communities - often communities of color with high rates of poverty - have long protested pollution trading and other "offset" schemes which leave their communities subject to unhealthy levels of air pollution. More importantly, rigorous studies of "offset" and other air pollution trading schemes have found the approach to be vulnerable to gaming and corruption. One such study "Pollution trading and environmental injustice: Los Angeles’ failed experiment in air quality policy" is available on-line at this link.

The California Air Resources Board recently approved a pollution trading "offset" approach as part of implementing California’s climate change response. The California ARB's  "Compliance Offset Program" can be reviewed on line 

In a 2012 Fact Sheet also available on line, the group Food and Water Watch questions whether "offset" and other market-based schemes should be substituted for traditional regulatory approaches to reducing pollution:     
               "If we let market fundamentalists and industry-funded nonprofits tout market-based mechanisms and a “green economy” as innovative solutions to our resource problems, we ignore proven methods of reducing pollution. Instead, we are simply speculating on nature. These schemes are a smokescreen, giving the appearance of regulation and action while at the same time giving industries carte blanche to continue using and abusing our common resources — and letting the finance sector profit from it." 

Proclaiming the "need to protect common resources, not profits", Food and Water Watch urges us to reject turning Public Trust resources into commodities:
                "We cannot afford to bet the health of the environment or our access to water on the Wall Street casino. Instead of gambling with financial actors and markets in nature-based assets, we should rely on regulation of activities that harm the environment and contribute to climate change. Instead of pushing the expansion, integration and financialization of water markets, we should implement and enforce regulations that preserve our essential resources and promote policies that acknowledge water as a human right."

Pollution trading comes to the Klamath River Basin

In spite of problems encountered in pollution trading "offset" schemes implemented to reduce air pollution and address climate change, the EPA and state agencies have moved forward with plans to use the same market-based approach for Clean Water Act compliance. One of the first examples in California and Oregon is being developed in the Upper Klamath River Basin and is intended to constitute compliance with the Clean Water Act at the point where the Klamath River flows from Oregon into California. 

Approved by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in March 2010, the "Action Plan for the Klamath River Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) addressing temperature, DO, nutrient, and microcystin impairments in the Klamath River" and the "Implementation plan for the Klamath and Lost River Basins" authorize a program that would "calculates credit towards meeting regulatory requirements through offsite mitigation."

In order to implement the authorized "offset" program, the NCRWQCB is developing the "Klamath Basin water quality improvement tracking and accounting program."  That program will be used to calculate "offset" credits which will then be used in permits developed for polluters. Once in place, these polluters will be able to legally continue discharging unlawful levels of pollutants into the Klamath River in violation of water quality standards because that pollution would be "offset" by "restoration" elsewhere in the basin.  

We are likely to first see the Klamath's pollution trading "offset" scheme applied in discharge permits for City of Klamath Falls sewage treatment plants and for the Tule Lake Irrigation District (TID).

Located just south of the California-Oregon border, Tulelake Irrigation District (shown 
in yellow on this map) is part of the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Irrigation Project

The City of Klamath Falls has protested phosphorous discharge limitations imposed by the State of Oregon; the city could avoid the cost of reducing its phosphorous discharges by funding wetland restoration as an "offset". 

In the case of Tule Lake Irrigation District (TID), we could see taxpayer-funded restoration above Upper Klamath Lake proposed as an "offset" for the highly polluted run-off which TID pumps from the Lost River Basin and discharges into the Keno Reach of the Klamath River, just upriver of the California-Oregon border, via the Klamath Straits. At times that discharge has been so polluted that pure ammonia - a substance toxic to all life forms - has been discharged into the Klamath River.

Poor water quality leads to toxic algae blooms and fish kills in Keno Reservoir.
Currently owned by PacifiCorp, Keno Dam and Reservoir is not proposed for removal.
Under the KHSA Dam Deal, Keno would be transfered to the Bureau of Reclamation

A permit which substitutes taxpayer-funded restoration above Upper Klamath Lake for pollution control by and on the Tulelake Irrigation District would allow TID to continue to discharge pollution into three natural water bodies - Tule Lake, a federal wildlife refuge, the Klamath Straits, a natural stream used as the discharge drain for much of the Klamath Irrigation Project, and the Klamath River. 

TID farming operations are among the largest and most profitable agricultural operations in the entire Klamath River Basin; they are also among the most polluting operations in the Basin. It would be ironic if well-to-do TID farmers become the first in the Klamath River Basin granted "relief" from the Clean Water Act at the expense of US taxpayers and Klamath Salmon. 

The legality of "offset" schemes which allow discharge of pollution into natural water bodies to continue is yet to be tested in court. The one federal case filed so far - which challenged a water pollution trading and "offset" scheme for Chesapeake Bay - was dismissed on procedural grounds.
Attempting to use "off-sets" above Upper Klamath Lake to permit discharge of polluted agricultural wastewater into Tule Lake, the Klamath Straits and the Klamath River could also prompt a federal court challenge. 
In theory, pollution "offset" schemes can be effective both economically and environmentally. As the US EPA asserts with respect to water pollution "Where watershed circumstances favor trading, it can be a powerful tool for achieving pollutant reductions faster and at lower cost." In the real world, however, pollution "offset" schemes have had mixed results; most often, activities used as "offsets" have only shifted the impacts of pollution from one location and community to another location and another community. In other words, "offset" schemes have produced winners and losers. Water bodies and communities where the "offsets" (restoration) take place are among the winners; lower income folks, which are often communities of color, and areas where pollution continues unabated have often been the losers.

In the Klamath River Basin pollution "offset" schemes are likely to benefit Upper Basin interests at the expense of lower income and Native American communities along the Mid and Lower Klamath River.

Will "offset" and other market-based schemes work?

The essential question is whether the substitution of restoration project "offsets" for actually controlling polluted discharges will lead to achievement of water quality objectives and, thereby, to restoration of fisheries and other beneficial uses of water. While the devil will be in the details of the individual programs and permits implementing "offset" schemes, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient new funding from government or the private sector to "offset" the massive agricultural and urban stormwater pollution which are now the top reasons rivers and estuaries across the US do not meet established water quality standards.  Under these circumstances, existing levels of restoration used as "offsets" would result in compliance with the Clean Water Act on paper but would not lead to restoration of water quality and beneficial uses.

In the final analysis, finishing the job of cleaning up our rivers and estuaries will most likely not be achieved through "offsets" but rather will require directly controlling non-point pollution - especially agricultural pollution and urban stormwater run-off.  The reticence of the EPA and state Clean Water Act implementing agencies to effectively regulate agricultural pollution is not a good sign. Unless these agencies develop the will to effectively regulate non-point pollution from agriculture, urban run-off and other non-point sources, our streams, rivers, estuaries and the fisheries and other beneficial uses of water which depend on clean water will not be restored.

Felice Pace is editor and chief writer for KlamBlog. He has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1976 and has been advocating for fisheries, clean water and watershed restoration since 1986.

1 comment:

Felice Pace said...

Soon after KlamBlog published this post, I saw an article titled "New Forests and Yurok Tribe Register First Compliance Forest Carbon Offset Project for California Carbon Market."

Since the post discusses the use of off-sets within air pollution and climate change as well as clean water contexts, I though readers might be interested in the article. Here are links to it: