A Watershed Event in Water Management

Across the nation, cities, counties and water districts want clean water, but they face a dilemma. Regulatory mechanisms and permits, usually directed at geographic governing...
by | September 14, 2009

Across the nation, cities, counties and water districts want clean water, but they face a dilemma. Regulatory mechanisms and permits, usually directed at geographic governing units, don't always align with the watersheds these tools are designed to protect.

Officials must treat wastewater to federal standards and reduce stormwater runoff and associated contaminants. Yet regulatory mechanisms usually come in small packages--one permit at a time for each wastewater system and a whole different set of permits for stormwater management. As a result, they often encounter hurdles to using a holistic approach to wastewater and stormwater management.

Water managers in the Tualatin River Basin in Washington County, Oregon took an innovative approach. Through some big picture thinking, a bit of circumstantial good fortune, and strong partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency and others, these pioneers may be rewriting the future of watershed management.

The Tualatin Basin, once primarily an agricultural region nestled southwest of Portland, now has growing suburbs that fall within Portland's urban growth boundary. Taxpayers in communities within the Tualatin Basin have spent more than $300 million over the past decade on wastewater treatment facilities. They also created a comprehensive surface water management utility. Thanks to these actions, the Tualatin River, according to the local water agency, "is healthier than it's been in generations."

But the demands of population growth and development continue to stress water systems. The local surface water utility, Clean Water Services (CWS), saw complex challenges looming that required looking at the whole watershed, a watershed that includes a number of towns, four wastewater systems, and stormwater runoff from multiple locations. Permits at four wastewater treatment plants expired in 2000. Rather than renew each permit and, separately, seek a required stormwater permit, CWS decided to try a watershed approach. They wanted to bundle into a single permitting action the renewals of all four wastewater treatment permits and the stormwater permit.

They had another innovation in mind, as well. In 2001, CWS was facing a Clean Water Act requirement to reduce water temperatures of effluent from wastewater treatment plants. Rather than investing $60 million in expensive refrigeration systems ("chillers"), they decided to work with the adjacent farming community to plant shade trees along the river to cool water temperatures to required standards for just $6 million, a tenth the cost of the mechanical cooling equipment.

Here's where the circumstantial good fortune comes in. Their big-picture idea required coordination among several towns, the County, and farmers. In the Basin, the County Board of Supervisors also acts as the governing board for Clean Water Services, which serves most of the urban portions of the Tualatin Basin. This overlapping of County and water management governance helped pave the way for CWS to spend utility monies "outside" its jurisdiction on farmlands in the County.

Though water managers benefited from this governance good fortune, it was their innovative thinking about permits and their partnerships that led to one of the most-path breaking watershed permits in the country. They took advantage of provisions championed by Tracy Mehan, Assistant Administrator for Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. These provisions allowed for "water quality trading" in which temperature goals for water systems could be met through "credits" earned by paying farmers to plant trees at particular locations in the watershed.

The Tualatin River would keep its cool thanks to shade trees.

The permit used trading provisions to pay farmers $6 million to plant 35 miles of shade trees in riparian areas, avoiding the $60 million in costs to construct refrigeration systems at two wastewater treatment plants. For the trade, Clean Water Services received in 2004 "the first-ever fully integrated municipal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit." Through this combined permit, CWS has been able to "balance heat released from the treatment facilities with cool water released from Hagg Lake and new shade from planting trees in rural riparian areas," according to analysts at the Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University.

To avoid risks that some trees would die off, CWS worked with farmers to plant twice as many trees as was necessary to achieve desired water temperatures. Farmers participate on a voluntary basis. After a slow initial start as farmers eyed with caution any involvement in the permit, CWS now has had to turn farmers away, as the tree-planting goal has been met.

Many trees are now several years old and have begun actually shading the water. Ongoing monitoring puts the whole permit to an accountability test. Many environmental organizations, once skeptical, support the trading program. CWS concludes of its pioneering effort that water quality trading allows them "to work with our agricultural partners to improve the health of the river by investing resources where they will provide the biggest bang for the buck by trading the thermal loads from our treatment facilities for streamside shading improvements outside of the Clean Water Services' boundary."

Can this approach be used elsewhere? Yes, but success requires often delicate political coordination among various units of government. The benefits, however, are significant.

The Tualatin Basin saves money through this approach, and it also benefits more broadly. This holistic watershed management approach, including the increased tree planting, benefits wildlife and enhances the region's natural beauty, and it does not require energy to power refrigeration systems. The bundled permit is, in short, clean, green, and dollar smart.

Lynn Scarlett is the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and now an independent environmental consultant. She can be reached at lynnscarlett@comcast.net.