Ideas

Reviving the Commons: Using Incentives to Protect the Nation’s Sources of Fresh Water

September 9, 2016

Brandywine Creek is a tributary of the Christina River in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware in the United States. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

Streams and rivers provide 65 percent of America’s drinking water as well as a host of other critical services, including food production, irrigation, hygiene, hydropower and recreation. They also have been used throughout human history to carry household, agricultural, and industrial wastes downstream; and if we do not overload them, our streams and rivers are capable of processing the pollutants we discharge into them and cleaning their own waters.

Unfortunately, we are seriously overloading them: in its most recent “National Rivers and Streams Assessment,” issued a few months ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found almost half the nation’s waterways in poor condition.

This is a clear example of what Garrett Hardin, in his 1968 essay, called The Tragedy of the Commons, wherein the “rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them.” River systems are the ultimate commons, and yet the run-off from thousands of farms and factories and millions of homes finds its way into local streams and larger rivers and ultimately the ocean. The cumulative effect of these private activities is destroying the commons.

Since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, federal and state regulations, educational outreach, and improved farming, industrial and household practices have done much to clean up America’s rivers; but as the EPA assessment makes clear, there is much more to do. After all, clean fresh water is the lifeblood of our planet, and without it most living things in our watersheds cannot survive.

Fig. 1. Illustration of how width of a riparian forest buffer helps avoid unnatural temperatures and keep unwanted sediments and nutrients from entering the stream (right). The landowner’s cost reimbursement can be increased in relation to buffer width to incentivize landowners to pursue wider buffers (left) and the additional ecosystem services they provide (from Sweeney and Blaine 2016).
Fig. 1. Illustration of how width of a riparian forest buffer helps avoid unnatural temperatures and keep unwanted sediments and nutrients from entering the stream (right). The landowner’s cost reimbursement can be increased in relation to buffer width to incentivize landowners to pursue wider buffers (left) and the additional ecosystem services they provide (from Sweeney and Blaine 2016).

Hardin demonstrated how self-interest leads to the destruction of the commons. In a newly published paper, we argue that a growing body of research and recent technological innovations suggest that “incentives rewarding private behavior” can also play a role in protecting public sources of fresh water – and implementing this new knowledge can enable funding agencies both to save money and to protect the nation’s streams and rivers.

For example, the continuous planting of a variety of cover crops is an emerging agricultural practice that enables farmers to move away from the intense use of irrigation systems, fertilizers, and pesticides, and consequently to greatly reduce the impacts of crop production on our streams and rivers. It requires, however, much from the farmer, including state-of-the-art equipment, sophisticated planning, intimate knowledge of the soil ecosystem – and most importantly, the willingness to adopt such practices and to ensure their use in perpetuity through land-conservation easements.

The additional money, time and knowledge required make it difficult, if not prohibitive, for many farmers to implement such a system – but if we could accurately measure the ensuing improvements to water quality, we could reward landowners for making substantial investments for the public good, while simultaneously saving the far greater costs associated with cleaning polluted streams.

Fig. 2. Solar-powered datalogger and transmitter (A; photograph by S. Hicks, Stroud Water Research Center) positioned next to a wooden hydro-designed control structure (B; photograph by D. Montgomery, Stroud Water Research Center ) that has been inserted into the outfall ditch of an irrigated cornfield near Chestertown, Maryland, and outfitted (at the base of the control structure on the upstream side) with 2 continuously recording electronic sensor probes (C; photograph by B. Sweeney). The structure and sensors enable real-time measurement of the quantity of water runoff (m3/s) as measured by depth in m (D), the dissolved chemical content (conductivity µS/cm) of the water (E), and its turbidity in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) (F). Recordings from the ditch (D, E, F) are for a small (0.8 cm) rain storm over a 24-h period 25–26 September 2015 (from Sweeney and Blaine 2016).
Fig. 2. Solar-powered datalogger and transmitter (A; photograph by S. Hicks, Stroud Water Research Center) positioned next to a wooden hydro-designed control structure (B; photograph by D. Montgomery, Stroud Water Research Center ) that has been inserted into the outfall ditch of an irrigated cornfield near Chestertown, Maryland, and outfitted (at the base of the control structure on the upstream side) with 2 continuously recording electronic sensor probes (C; photograph by B. Sweeney). The structure and sensors enable real-time measurement of the quantity of water runoff (m3/s) as measured by depth in m (D), the dissolved chemical content (conductivity µS/cm) of the water (E), and its turbidity in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) (F). Recordings from the ditch (D, E, F) are for a small (0.8 cm) rain storm over a 24-h period 25–26 September 2015 (from Sweeney and Blaine 2016).

In addition, we have long known that streamside forests intercept manmade pollutants that would otherwise seep into the stream. More recently, we have discovered that those forests also improve the stream ecosystem’s ability to process the pollutants that do get in and thus keep them from moving downstream (Fig. 1).  To do so, however, the buffers need to be about three times as wide as the current norm (100 feet as opposed to 35 feet), which not only increases the landowner’s cost of planting and maintenance, but also takes significantly more farmland land out of production.

Because wider buffers markedly enhance the stream’s restorative abilities and consequently save public funds that would otherwise be needed to clean the water, we believe that some of the taxpayer savings could be used to incentivize landowners to create them. One such incentive would be to reimburse landowners more for wider buffers (Fig. 1).

Until recently, it had not been possible to quantify environmental improvements associated with cover cropping or streamside forests with much precision, and it was impossible to assign the causes of change to specific activities or parcels of land. With the availability of a new generation of low-cost, wireless, and precise sensors, however, we can now continuously record the levels of many pollutants that impair water quality and thus measure the impact of the practices the landowner has adopted (Fig. 2). It is then a simple matter to scale financial incentives to the landowner based on the measurable reduction in pollution from his or her land. The aim is to reward landowners for quantifiable results instead of just good intentions. Farmers can be further compensated for easement programs that ensure the perpetuation of their improvements, thus rewarding those who adopt the very best conservation practices throughout their entire operation. Funds for such programs could come from a variety of public and private sources, including downstream water users who benefit immediately and directly from the improvements.  Water funds, such as those promoted by The Nature Conservancy, (e.g., Brandywine-Christina Healthy Water Fund) could be nicely leveraged with existing state and federal funds for best management practices (BMPs) to begin to restore the commons.

Fig. 3. Good landuse choices like grass waterways, terracing, and contour planting (A; photograph by BWS), manure storage lagoons (B; photograph by D. Arscott, Stroud Water Research Center), cattle-watering structures (C; photograph by A. Sigler, Montana State University), and sediment erosion controls (D; photograph courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS]) result in clean water in nearby streams (center; left tributary). Poor landuse choices, such as farming up and down steep slopes (E; photo BWS), spreading manure on frozen fields (F; photograph by R. Vannote, Stroud Water Research Center), allowing cattle to access streams (G; photograph by B. Sweeney, Stroud Water Research Center), and improper erosion controls on construction sites (H; photograph by L. Betts, USDA NRCS) result in highly turbid, polluted water in nearby streams (center; right tributary). Center photograph by D. Funk, Stroud Water Research Center. (From Sweeney and Blaine 2016)
Fig. 3. Good landuse choices like grass waterways, terracing, and contour planting (A; photograph by BWS), manure storage lagoons (B; photograph by D. Arscott, Stroud Water Research Center), cattle-watering structures (C; photograph by A. Sigler, Montana State University), and sediment erosion controls (D; photograph courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS]) result in clean water in nearby streams (center; left tributary). Poor landuse choices, such as farming up and down steep slopes (E; photo BWS), spreading manure on frozen fields (F; photograph by R. Vannote, Stroud Water Research Center), allowing cattle to access streams (G; photograph by B. Sweeney, Stroud Water Research Center), and improper erosion controls on construction sites (H; photograph by L. Betts, USDA NRCS) result in highly turbid, polluted water in nearby streams (center; right tributary). Center photograph by D. Funk, Stroud Water Research Center. (From Sweeney and Blaine 2016)

Let us be clear. We are not proposing that a landowner be compensated for behavior that he or she should practice in the first place, such as refraining from polluting the streams that cross or abut his or her land. Nor are we advocating that a landowner be paid simply for enhancing the value or beauty of his or her own land. Projects that produce purely private benefits have no call on public funds.

We are arguing that a landowner should be compensated for private actions and good land use  beyond simply obeying the laws and abiding by the regulations, and their benefits are not confined to the particular property on which they are implemented. Rather, they reclaim a bit of the commons by protecting the water, its ecosystem, and the watershed that sustains them. We think it reasonable and appropriate to use public funds to purchase services that enhance the quality of fresh water in the nation’s rivers and thereby improve the public welfare. Governments do it all the time. A landowner should be rewarded for the verifiable and measurable value that he or she has added for the benefit of all – for actions that have not merely helped diminish the tragedy of the commons, but have begun to reverse it. We think it at once hopeful and ironic that a powerful incentive system, which has in the past done much to destroy the commons, may in the future help to revive it.

Bernard W. Sweeney, Stroud Water Research Center, Avondale, PA 19311.
James G. Blaine, Blaine Enterprises, Northeast Harbor, Maine 04662.

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2 comments

  1. There is a lot research out there that shows the actual benefits of having a buffer zone between water and homes and fields. There is also a lot of research on the effects that trees (willow) have on removing contaminants. Very interesting subject and one that is being utilized in other parts of the world.

    I agree that rewarding good practices may help to encourage farmers and others to adopt these practices, especially if it helps to offset what they would loose by not utilizing that land.

    Another possibility is to use this land to grow a cash crop of willow for ethanol or sale to coal fired energy plants. This would make the most of both worlds. Check out the ESF Willow project.

  2. Nice article on the commons. I have been digging into the economic traits of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and came up with this scenario is called the ‘Strategy for the Commons’ – http://bit.ly/2cRXlVm