Can We Please Talk About Outcomes For A Change???

Posted on April 22, 2013 by Rick Glick

I get it that environmental groups place strict compliance with regulatory controls at a premium.  After all, the standards are designed to be protective of the resource, and they are The Law, which must be obeyed. 

But I sometimes find it dismaying when people conflate immediate, measured, and guaranteed compliance with ecological outcomes.  They are not the same.  I have been in settlement discussions in which I propose that we first come to agreement on what’s best for the resource, and then figure out how to make that fit into the regulatory framework, but have had few takers.  The number is the number is the number.

A recent example arises in the context of water quality trading.  EPA policy promotes alternative means of achieving regulatory compliance that promise environmental results at least as good as conventional, engineered approaches, and at lower cost.  For example, if discharge water temperatures are the problem, riparian shade tree planting could substitute for mechanical chillers.  Of course, measureable cooling would be deferred by many years while the trees grow, but the ancillary benefits of watershed restoration to habitat and ecosystem function are intuitive and compelling.  This approach is supported by academia, government, and many in the NGO community.  Some though are skeptical.

The City of Medford, Oregon, is embarking on a riparian vegetation approach to reduce temperatures at its wastewater treatment outfall, in full cooperation with Oregon DEQ.  A regional NGO, Northwest Environmental Advocates, however, has raised objections.  In a letter dated March 15, 2013, NEA asks EPA to examine DEQ’s implementation of the water quality trading policy with reference to Medford.  NEA questions allowance of “credits” for watershed restoration work that upstream nonpoint sources would have to do anyway, and asserts that no credits should be allowed until the new trees actually yield shade.

The problem is that the upstream nonpoint sources are not obligated by law to restore riparian vegetation; they just need to adopt best management practices to avoid further degradation.  More to the point, restoration of the watershed will simply not occur without the funding provided by a point source with a regulatory problem to solve, such as Medford.  By denying the City credits, the incentive to use a watershed approach disappears.  Similarly, if no credits are awarded until the trees are grown, funds that could go toward watershed restoration will be diverted to engineered controls on temperature.  As DEQ Director Dick Pedersen so aptly puts it, “[i]f we ever build a chiller at the expense of ecosystems, we’ve failed.”