January 2006  
Markets to Help Willamette River Keep its Cool
by Cameron Walker

From its headwaters high in Oregon's Cascade Range, the Willamette River wends a 190-mile course to its mouth at the Columbia River. Along the way, the Willamette and its tributaries pass rich agricultural lands planted with vineyards and berry bushes, major cities where the concrete gleams with rainwater, and mills turning the state's timber into blank pages. All of these contribute to the change of the Willamette's character from the braided river system of centuries past, flush with salmon, to an often-channeled one, running with the byproducts of agriculture, industry, and urban living.

The Clean Water Act and other regulatory moves, along with dedicated Oregonians, have improved Willamette water quality since it hit a low in the early 20th century. But to restore the river to full health--including functioning flood plains and natural stream channels--Oregon stakeholders are starting to look to the market. A project called the Willamette Partnership is working to create a trading market based on forthcoming temperature limits on the river and plans to trade a wider variety of conservation credits in the future.

Few ecosystem markets have relied on temperature as their hot commodity. And few have done it the way the Willamette Partnership intends--by setting up trades between two different types of pollution sources. "There are hardly any projects out there that do point/non-point trading on a significant scale," says Claire Schary, an EPA water-quality trading expert.

Point-source pollution is easy to identify. Effluent shoots out of a pipe from a wastewater treatment plant, a pulp mill, or another spot that creates a single, measurable output into the river. Non-point source pollution, on the other hand, makes its way to the watershed with the help of Oregon's plentiful precipitation. Street runoff carries pollutants from car oil and tires, among other things; runoff can carry sediment and agricultural pesticides from farmlands into the watershed. The result: it's hard to pinpoint exactly where it's coming from (see Nutrient Trading and Dead Zones--Can they wake each other up?).

Willamette Ecosystem Marketplace

The Willamette Partnership's proposed market, dubbed the Willamette Ecosystem Marketplace, will give point source polluters the chance to mitigate their high-temperature discharge by buying conservation credits that can be used to address non-point source pollution. For example, a treatment plant could pay farmers to plant trees along streamside land, cooling the water temperature down with natural shade.

This fall, the Environmental Protection Agency selected the Willamette Partnership as a grant recipient in its Targeted Watershed Grants program. In 2005, the EPA awarded $9 million to 12 organizations that promote watershed health through innovative programs. The Willamette Partnership will receive $779,000 to get their market up and running.

The cap for this temperature-based trading market will be the temperature total maximum daily load, or TMDL. The state Department of Environmental Quality plans to put the TMDL plans through a public comment period this spring; it could become final as early as the summer. "Once you have a load allocation, then you have a ceiling," says David Primozich, the Willamette Partnership's executive director. "The market will be more effective when the TMDL is set."

Willamette Water

Human influence on the lands surrounding the Willamette has a long history. Native Americans used frequent, low-intensity fires to maintain their food sources, edible plants and wild game. Once settlers reached the terminus of the Oregon Trail, the river became a transportation lifeline. Towns sprang up on its banks and pollutants began to fill the water. In 1937, salmon put in at the river's mouth emerged dead or gagging after a few minutes. The river became increasingly channeled, with 13 dams put in place between 1941 and 1969.

Rising concern for the river's health led to a widespread cleanup of point sources in the 1960s. In 1972, National Geographic ran a cover story about the Willamette's improving water quality. The headline: A River Restored.

Since then, researchers and water managers have learned that there's more to protecting a river than cleaning up what comes out of a pipe. Subsequent work has focused on overall ecosystem health along with tightening discharge standards.

Travis Williams, Executive Director of Willamette Riverkeeper, recently got a bird's-eye view of the river. From a plane, he looked down on the range of habitats in place on a river which once had floodplains extending as much as seven miles. "In some places it looks like a drainage ditch with a few cottonwoods," says Williams, who's also on the Willamette Partnership's board of directors.

Growing urban areas will place even more demands on the river, but most regulatory measures aren't set up to deal with the non-point source pollution that can be a result. "The Clean Water Act is heavily skewed to addressing point sources," says Dennis Ades, the Tualatin Basin coordinator at the state Department of Environmental Quality. But with Oregon's population set to boom in the next 50 years, especially in the Willamette Valley, non-point source pollution will grow, he says.

Taking a River's Temperature

"When we get sick, what do we do? We take our temperature," says Mary Lou Soscia, the EPA's project officer for the Willamette Partnership. Temperature is an indicator not only for human health but for rivers as well, says Soscia, who worked with temperature on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Temperature itself isn't usually what harms fish and other species. Increased temperature can cause physiological problems, accelerate fish metabolism, and decrease immunity, making fish more susceptible to disease.

A river's temperature is dynamic, rising and falling over the course of the day and throughout the seasons. Fish have evolved with these natural patterns. Changing river temperatures often give fish the push to embark on their seaward migration.

If the thermostat is set too high, fish may wait too long to migrate and then not have the energy to navigate dams and other aquatic obstacles, Soscia says. Rising temperatures aren't just the result of warm water discharges. There's another culprit, rising and setting each day. But solar radiation – especially between April and October when the sun is higher in the sky – naturally warms up the water. Where riverside vegetation has been removed to build a new strip mall or plant grapes, the river loses protection from this natural warming.

Cost-effective Cooling

In Eugene, Oregon's second largest city, the city's wastewater treatment plant takes in warm water from showers, dishwashers, and washing machines for treatment for most residents of Eugene, neighboring Springfield, and the surrounding area. It's the largest municipal point-source discharger into the upper Willamette, putting out processed wastewater into the river through an underground pipe, perforated like a sieve to diffuse the water as it is released.

"What's happening nationwide is that the changes to water quality standards are such that it's no longer possible to respond to them with straightforward technological measures," says Peter Ruffier, director of Eugene's wastewater divisions. The technological approach to cooling water would be to draw heat from water with chillers--machines that cost about $50 million to install and $4 million to operate each year. While the water would be cooler, it might come in at a loss for the environment. Huge amounts of energy--produced by burning natural gas or even coal--would be required to run the chillers.

The Wasterwater Division's discharge permit from the DEQ is set to be renewed in 2007, and Ruffier says the temperature limit is likely to be much more stringent. Instead of looking at the pipe buried beneath the Willamette, which discharges water between 65 and 70 degrees in the summer months, a trading market could let Ruffier and others stay under the temperature cap by paying for riparian restoration to reduce water temperatures.

Planting trees streamside has more than just temperature-reduction benefits: fish can use the shaded water as habitat, migrating and resident birds can perch in the branches, and a spreading root system can combat erosion. Ruffier is also interested in looking at the hyporheic zone, areas in the river where groundwater and river water meet and create natural cooling. In the past, the Willamette had more gravel bars and other shallow areas that may have helped prevent temperature from climbing too high. Rehabilitating gravel bars could not only increase cooling, but also provide habitat for fish to spawn and rear, Ruffier says. Floodplain restoration could also have a significant impact on the river's temperature.

Trades on the Willamette may link up point sources with riparian areas on different streams. Small streams often respond more quickly to riparian repair than large ones. "If you look at Portland harbor, even the largest Doug fir won't cast a long shadow" to shade and cool the lower reaches of the Willamette, Ades says.

The market could help not only protect and repair habitat, but aid municipal plants in planning for the future. With new facilities needed if the population rises, municipal plants could start trading now so that as demands increase, they can respond without going above the cap.

The Willamette Partnership's proposal aims to funnel money where the river needs it most by using the market's efficient resource distribution. "The whole purpose [of the market] is to have the money in places where it will do a lot of good" by generating a wide range of ecological benefits, says Sara Vickerman, Director of Defenders of Wildlife's northwest office, "and not just cool the water."

Complete river recovery will require more than the market alone. Not all of the ecosystem's inter-connected web of salmon runs, hardwood forests, and floodplains can become commodities. But the proposed marketplace doesn't need extensive new regulatory structures and could function well when combined with other conservation efforts, says Bobby Cochran, a program associate with Defenders of Wildlife.

Next Steps

The Willamette Partnership has set the goal of opening temperature trading within 30 months. In the meantime, the EPA grant will enable Primozich and others to start setting up the framework of regulatory, legal, and technical structures on which to build a market.

It may take a while for results to come in. But a program on the neighboring Tualatin River seems to be catching on. In January 2005, Clean Water Services, which provides wastewater treatment for 500,000 residents of urban Washington County, launched a trading program based on the temperature TMDL they first received in 2001. Instead of putting in $150 million of cooling technology, they'll be responsible for providing shade along both sides of 35 miles of the basin's streams in the next five years to offset their thermal discharge. Since the program started, 14 Washington County farmers have committed to planting nearly 9 miles of rural waterways, which would help restore 120 acres of stream corridors.

Back on the Willamette, shade trees will take several years to grow and make measurable impacts on water temperature. But over time, the benefits that come from habitat restoration will likely put the environment in the black. And here, the market's success is secondary to the Willamette's own. "I don't want trading for trading's sake," Schary says, "I want it to be set up to realize the environmental goals we want to achieve."