Ecosystem Services – A New Tool for Mitigating Water Development?

Posted on April 9, 2012 by Martha Pagel

The use of ecosystem services as a tool for compensatory mitigation is off to a slow start in Oregon.  It remains to be seen whether state agencies will effectively embrace and implement this relatively new approach to setting priorities and standards for mitigation programs. A specific question from the standpoint of water use and development is whether a wide range of ecosystem services can be used as an alternative to “bucket-for-bucket” in-stream flow replacement as mitigation to offset new water development.

The concept of ecosystem services – defined as “the benefits human communities enjoy as a result of natural processes and biodiversity” – has been recognized in Oregon law since 2009. (ORS 468.581(3)). The law establishes a general policy to support the maintenance, enhancement and restoration of ecosystem services in Oregon (ORS 468.583). Agencies are “encouraged” to use ecosystem services markets as a means to meet mitigation needs for various programs, and are directed to consider mitigation strategies that recognize the need for biological connectivity and ecological restoration efforts at a landscape scale rather than exercise an “automatic preference for on-site, in-kind mitigation” in making mitigation decisions (ORS 468.587(2)). See “Adventures in Water Quality Mitigation” for additional background.

Despite this policy and directive, the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) has not yet taken any actions to modify its mitigation policies relating to issuance of new water right permits.  Under long-standing procedures, OWRD requires mitigation for new uses that are determined to have the potential to interfere with in-stream flows needed for fish that are listed as sensitive, threatened or endangered under state or federal programs.  (OAR Chapter 690, Division 33).

The need for mitigation arises most often in the context of reviewing applications for new ground water use. When the ground water source is determined to be in hydraulic connection to surface waters providing habitat for the listed fish species, mitigation may be required to offset the expected surface water depletion. Based on guidance from a biological opinion issued in a specific water right permit matter some years back, OWRD typically requires “bucket-for-bucket” mitigation in the form of in-stream flow restoration at or above the stream reach that will be affected by the ground water use. 

Applicants generally obtain mitigation water by acquiring and cancelling other existing water rights for surface water use.  In practice, the system results in a de facto cap and trade program, conditioning approval of new water rights on the cancellation of existing rights. 

In a few regions of the state – most notably the Deschutes Basin in Central Oregon – the bucket-for-bucket replacement approach works because mitigation water is generally available through voluntary markets.  This somewhat unique set of circumstances arises because of population growth and land use changes in an area of relatively marginal farming productivity.  As farm lands are converted to housing and urban uses in and near the cities Bend, Redmond and Prineville, the existing water rights become available for mitigation purposes.

In other parts of the state – most notably the highly productive and water-efficient farming region in the mid-Columbia Basin – the fact situation is quite different.  There is very little mitigation water available because existing water rights are needed to maintain existing agricultural production levels.  The frustration for economic development interests is exacerbated by the enormous volume of flow in the Columbia River and huge reservoir pools created by the federal hydropower system, both of which are untouchable because of the regulatory limitations on new withdrawals.   

The issue of ecosystem services as a potential alternative for mitigation took center stage briefly in the 2012 legislative session – but the discussion resulted in no action. HB 4126 would have spurred availability of ecosystem services markets by focusing on improved methodologies for quantifying and applying ecosystem services “credits.” Another bill that was hotly debated but eventually died in committee was focused directly on the Columbia Basin problems.  HB 4101 would have required OWRD to “consider new mitigation options for new surface water diversions” in the Columbia River Basin. The mitigation wording was specifically intended to open the door for alternatives to the “bucket-for-bucket” approach.  By putting the ecosystem services concept to work, mitigation alternatives could reasonably include investment in high value habitat restoration, including temperature reduction or other water quality improvements in priority tributaries to offset direct withdrawals from the Columbia River. 

For many of us directly involved in the Columbia River debates in Oregon, this new approach could be a key to unlocking access to the river for new economic use.  Without this policy change, Oregon water uses will continue to see little or no new irrigation development in the area because of the lack of traditional mitigation sources.  The Governor and legislative leadership are already working on a revival of the HB 4101 discussion in 2013.


Posted on January 13, 2010 by Rick Glick

The regulated community is experimenting with solutions to water quality regulatory problems that are market based and implemented on a watershed scale. Such efforts are being met with guarded interest by agencies, environmental organizations and the public, but offer the best hope for true ecological restoration. Oregon has recently passed legislation to foster ecosystem services markets to facilitate this approach. 


The Clean Water Act addresses water quality degradation through establishment of water quality standards and imposition of technology based effluent limitations in point source discharge permits. The receiving waters are tested periodically to see if standards are being attained, and if not, then Total Maximum Daily Loads are set and waste load allocations given to point sources so that permits can be adjusted. Non-point sources are given load allocations in the TMDL, but since there is no direct regulatory enforcement mechanism, and since funding sources are limited, compliance is not assured. 


This model has worked out pretty well for dealing with municipal and industrial waste water discharges, and toxics in receiving waters have been  much reduced. However, there has been little effect on water quality degradation related to non-point sources. In Oregon, over 1,200 streams are listed as water quality limited, and the vast majority are on the list for non-point source related problems, such as warmer ambient water temperatures and nutrient loading. What to do?



The conventional response is to ratchet up permit requirements for point sources, or impose local mitigation requirements on those caught in the Clean Water Act § 401 water certification web.  As it is said, if all you have is a hammer, all your problems are nails. There are, however, other tools in the box. Here are a couple of examples of ecomarket approaches.


Clean Water Services is the second largest sewerage agency in Oregon. It has four treatment outfalls discharging to the flat, slow moving Tualatin River. The discharge raises  receiving water temperatures, and when it came time to renew its four permits, the agency was facing stricter requirements to control thermal loading. Rather than installing mechanical chillers at the outfalls, the CWS proposed a large-scale riparian revegetation program. It was projected that the massive tree planting effort would take about ten years to match the cooling effect of the chillers, but would double the cooling as the trees matured. And with such an effort come ancillary habitat and other ecological benefits throughout the watershed that no chiller could provide. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved the program and it is being implemented.


Idaho Power Company has proposed a similar approach to resolve water temperature problems associated with its Hells Canyon Complex on the Snake River. The HCC is comprised of three dams and reservoirs that together generate over 1,100 MW.  The HCC is undergoing relicensing, which triggers the CWA 401 water quality certification process before both the Oregon and Idaho Departments of Environmental Quality, as the Snake River is a border stream. A temperature control structure installed in the HCC’s largest reservoir would probably solve the regulatory problem, but would offer few ecological benefits. Instead, the company is proposing an ambitious upstream watershed improvement program comprised of riparian planting, fencing, wetlands enhancement, irrigation efficiency upgrades and flow augmentation. The Snake River watershed is vast and complex, with heavy human influence throughout, so a program on this scale will be tough to implement. However, the potential upside piques the imagination. 


Official policy favors such watershed approaches. EPA has adopted a water quality trading policy that encourages transactions between point and non-point sources with a focus on reducing nutrient loads and thus restoring depleted dissolved oxygen. EPA also recognizes the potential for applying the policy to temperature problems. Last year the Oregon legislature enacted Senate Bill 513 , which establishes state policy supporting development of ecosystem services markets to facilitate watershed scale solutions to water quality restoration. 


I have been appointed to the SB 513 working group tasked with developing the policy and making further recommedations to the legislature. One of the greatest challenges is the lack of reliable metrics. Because there are myriad other upstream influences on water temperature, it is exceedingly difficult to measure the effect of an upstream tree planting program on downstream temperatures. Further, the benefits from watershed programs are long term in nature. 


Thus, there is risk both to the permittee and the regulatory agency that someone will sue to require immediate and measureable results. But if the goal of the overall regulatory program is truly ecological protection and restoration, then we must go beyond compliance for the sake of compliance and focus on outcomes. The huge potential for sustainable, widespread benefits resulting from watershed approaches makes this an effort well worth making.