BY DOUG BRUGGEMAN
An important component of value in any water or sewer system is not just the pipes and treatment plants that are controlled by political entities, but also how vegetation and land use affect the quantity and quality of water flowing across the watershed. The pipes and treatment plants are just the expensive component because they wear out over time. Ecosystems don’t wear out over time — in fact, they get better.
Certainly some communities, such as Asheville, have excellent source water protection via conservation easements on subbasins near water intakes. However, communities vary in their ability to protect those critical areas. Some communities benefit from having subbasins protected by the national forest system, which serves as a federal subsidy. Such protection highlights the ability of ecosystems to provide valuable services. However, recreational water quality is also critical to our regional economic success and is more difficult to manage because it is affected by the actions of many landowners.
Large-scale management of the environment is challenging, as it requires significant effort toward collaboration, which can easily go off the rails. The battle over Asheville’s water system is a good example. The debate has culminated in the General Assembly’s attempt to transfer the system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District, an action currently being considered by the N.C. Supreme Court.
I would argue that regardless of the outcome, these political battles have already left the public worse off simply because the money spent on litigation is money not spent to improve the quality of our natural resources. After a good rain and a few high-gravity beers, folks might believe they could walk across the French Broad River, since sediment levels are often significant. I can’t find any evidence that the proposed transfer would improve the French Broad watershed. I was further surprised to learn that, despite the availability of good scientific models, no one has estimated yet how population growth and climate change may affect sediment, fecal and nutrient loads across such a heavily used watershed. Such parameters are critical because they lead to economic estimates of watershed value that municipal water managers can appreciate.
In an effort to connect these environmental and economic issues, I have been working for the past year and a half to create new financing mechanisms for conservation in Western North Carolina — a disruptive change for a good cause. The idea and need were so obvious, I decided it was best to just suggest it in an op-ed for the Asheville Citizen-Times. I thought existing groups might pursue it, and I could perhaps help part time. While it generated a lot of discussion, I was surprised when the feedback was “You should really do this.”
So, I proposed a Payment for Ecosystem Services program for WNC. Such PES programs have been applied in many other locations (Denver, Santa Fe, N.M., Flagstaff, Ariz., and Eugene, Ore.) and involve businesses and local governments collaborating to pay for watershed protection on public and/or private land. Money for watershed protection is generated by municipalities raising water rates and by businesses allowing customers to pay a voluntary conservation fee. The money then goes toward forest management, such as thinning trees to reduce fire risk, establishing conservation easements and protecting vegetation along rivers and streams with riparian buffers. PES programs have been more successful out West, where the public is very aware of the impact wildfire can have on water quality.
I led the work with the astute help of Tom Hatley (Catalpa Partners, Asheville) and Spencer Phillips (Key-Log Economics, Charlottesville, Va.). We submitted two proposals, one to the Appalachian Regional Commission and the other to the Healthy Watersheds Consortium program fostered by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. For the latter grant, we invited support from local businesses, municipalities and nonprofits. We were able to gain financial support from New Belgium Brewing Co. to hold the first stakeholder meeting and to finalize the Healthy Watersheds Consortium proposal. We were very fortunate to have Karen Cragnolin, former executive director of RiverLink, make this introduction, and for Southern Conservation Partners, a Raleigh-based nonprofit, serve as the fiscal agent for this stage.
We also received tremendous support (e.g., letters of support and/or in-kind pledges of funds) from the U.S. Forest Service, Mills River Partnership, Madison County, city of Asheville, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation and Development, Krull & Co., WNC Communities, town of Maggie Valley, Land of Sky Regional Council, Dogwood Alliance, MountainTrue, and N.C. Rep. John Ager. While neither grant was awarded, we were highly ranked in the Healthy Watersheds Consortium program and should have a very good chance next year. As a small-business owner, it is difficult to finance such efforts in community building, and I am working to start a steering committee to keep the work going.
We have generated a lot of traction for PES, which is important for a new idea. Existing nonprofits in WNC excel in creating environmental awareness, monitoring land use and water quality, establishing conservation and agricultural easements, and restoring damaged riparian areas near source water intakes. Such efforts are supported by government grants, foundations and fundraising events — great stuff that must continue.
However, the benefit of a PES program is establishing a long-term funding mechanism linked to a regional, science-based investment strategy focused on protecting ecosystems that contribute most to our economic well-being. A PES approach would allow us to get ahead of impacts — protecting ecosystems is far more cost-effective than restoring damaged ecosystems after something happens.
So how can the WNC community adapt to climate change? I feel an important step is a private institution capable of collecting and distributing funds to incentivize land stewardship for resiliency. Such an institution would have to possess financial and scientific skills and the ability to work at broad spatial scales. Certainly, some existing nonprofits could direct their efforts toward this end. Another important step is estimating how much investment would be required just to maintain current water quality levels in the face of climate change and development. Many opportunities for collaborations and grant proposals still exist.
Furthermore, we can do this for multiple watersheds, not just the French Broad River, with the goal of generating collaboration across WNC by recognizing our shared source of economic welfare — natural capital. A PES program simply rewards those landowners wishing to contribute to regional economic well-being and would not require any change in property ownership. The economic growth of Asheville and Hendersonville is already affecting smaller communities, which may be slow to generate the tax base needed to keep up with infrastructure needs. Such a PES system would limit the need for higher taxes and political intervention while making changes on the ground at the speed we need for climate adaptation.
Let’s consider this opportunity within the context of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s use of the Tourism Product Development Fund, which is supported by the hotel occupancy tax. This fund is intended to increase tourism by supporting construction costs that increase use of hotels and by all accounts has been very successful. A PES program would offer a complementary investment by protecting the ecosystems needed for water quality and biodiversity — these are critical components of our tourism industry and community health.
We can do this — consider it as climate adaptation through gratitude. The next time you patronize a hotel, brewery, restaurant, hospital or recreational outfitter, for example, ask how you might tip our ecosystems to support a regional, proactive strategy for climate adaptation.
Marshall resident Doug Bruggeman mixes ecology, economics and spatial analysis to find cost-effective solutions for sustainability at Ecological Services and Markets Inc.