Getting ahead of climate change: Investment strategy needed for WNC watershed protection

Sustainability expert Doug Bruggeman is proposing an investment strategy to protect multiple watersheds in WNC.
PROTECTING THE SOURCE: A view of Asheville's North Fork Reservoir, which is protected by 15,000 acres of city-owned land in the surrounding watershed. Photo by Tracy Rose

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.

Doug Bruggeman
Doug Bruggeman

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.

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16 thoughts on “Getting ahead of climate change: Investment strategy needed for WNC watershed protection

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    This sounds to me like a hammer looking for a nail…

    • boatrocker

      Like voter fraud, HB2 and Obama ‘coming for your guns’.

  2. bsummers

    Aside from whatever merits this idea holds, herein lies the rub, at least as far as it applies to Asheville:

    “Money for watershed protection is generated by municipalities raising water rates”

    The City of Asheville is uniquely restricted by State law from using any water revenue for anything but maintaining and operating the water system. I would expect that restriction to hold, even if the system is eventually transferred to MSD.

      • bsummers

        I see you haven’t learned from your last prematurely triumphalist, humiliatingly wrong prediction…

        • I have learned that you do not understand that the water system will be transferred to MSD regardless of the outcome in court. I’m happy that you are oblivious to this fact even though it has been presented to you for years. Giddy, even. You progressives are really in the soup and it makes me laugh.

    • Doug

      Actually, local governments often invest in land stewardship as part of their water system all the time. There is no legal restriction. Though, one theme of the article though is that we need not rely on political decisions, as private businesses can take a leadership role.

      • bsummers

        My point was that Asheville is unique in ‘local governments’ when it comes to water. Do you understand what the Sullivan Acts are, and how they restrict Asheville’s use of water revenue?

        • Doug

          I am familiar with the Sullivan Act – my understanding is that only Act I is still germane. My understanding is also it’s focus is to prohibit differential rates based on geography. Raising water rates in any municipality would require a concerted political effort. If you know of any attorneys wiling to volunteer to support the effort please let me know. But are you saying the act prevents investing in land stewardship such as what occurs at the North Fork or Bee Tree basins owned by Asheville? Again, investing in land stewardship is a common method for water utilities. Note, Asheville is not unique in obtaining a fair amount of their drinking water from the National Forest (about 40%). Asheville, nor any other water utility in WNC, compensates the National Forest for this service. It is uncertain if National Forest budgets will be big enough to maintain this service given climate change.

          • bsummers

            No – Sullivan III is still very much in effect. It requires that the City keep the water revenues in a separate enterprise fund, and they are not allowed to use any of that money except for the operation and maintenance of the water system. Three years ago, the State even passed legislation to prevent the City from using water revenue for street & sidewalk maintenance related to water system work – a sign of how uniquely restricted Asheville is.

            So unless you’re able to describe the project you’re proposing here as “construction or replacement of assets”, I would have serious doubts that the City could or would weather the objections and probable lawsuits that would arise from raising rates to pay for it. Mind you, I support in general what you’re discussing here, but there are City-haters who will attempt to block anything that sounds too “progressive”, like spending their money preparing for the effects of climate change.

            http://ncleg.net/Sessions/2005/Bills/House/PDF/H1064v6.pdf

            But maybe I’m wrong, and the City’s attorneys think this would fly. Dunno.

            As for your suggestion that the National Forest Service might start charging municipalities for water, I can’t imagine that ever happening. You’d inspire a Bundy-style uprising in every State in the Union.

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            ” Asheville, nor any other water utility in WNC, compensates the National Forest for this service”

            I’m confused. What service does the USFS provide to Asheville? The USFS works for US citizens, not the city of Asheville. Are suggesting that they charge for water that they have nothing to do with? They are paid by taxpayers to manage our forests. It’s not their job to double bill the client.

          • Doug

            Communities in Colorado and Arizona, and hopefully in the near Future New Mexico, are voluntarily paying the US Forest Service to enhance watershed protection to ensure clean and abundant water. No Bundy-style uprising, because these communities are choosing to pay for quality water from the National Forest and other public land. Federal agencies will not charge communities for water. One of the main reasons for establishing the National Forest system was to provide water to the public. When communities are concerned that this “water service” may be degraded over time by drought, wildfire, pests, and/or flooding then they are stepping up and supplementing management of the forest on public land.

            Again, these monies could be raised by water rates and/or by voluntary donations from businesses and the public.

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            Voluntary donations are acceptable. Double taxation, which is essentially what raising water rates would be, is not. I suggest crowd funding for your endeavor. Let those who think there is a problem pay for it.

          • Doug

            Yes, crowd funding is a good idea.

            Of course it is good to be cautious with new ideas. However, even if utility rates are raised to support land management on National Forest, as has already been done elsewhere, it is not double taxation. Think of it this way – If Congress budgets to perform management actions A and B on a National Forest, but the local community wants, additionally, management action C and D to further support clean and abundant water and uses water rates to pay for additional management then it isn’t double taxation. It is making additional investments to support community use that are not being met at existing Federal budget levels.

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            You’ve already said that part of the USFS commission is to manage for clean water runoff. That’s paid for with tax dollars. If there’s a problem with that, then they’re not doing their job. What you’re suggesting is just rewarding them for failing to do what they are paid to do, and burdening taxpayers with more tax. It’s an artificial economy that is completely unnecessary.

  3. Lulz

    LOL, just another democorrupt excuse to create even more six figure jobs for their crony corrupt friends.

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