Liberte Environmental Associates

High Road to Basin Success

There is a modern epic building in the inland Northwest. It is an impressive struggle with many players and high stakes. It is a view of things to come for the Northwest and the nation.

Right now the epic is playing out on the banks of the Spokane, Boise and Snake Rivers. With it, the upper Columbia River and many downstream basin stakeholders are also affected. The competitors are municipal and industrial dischargers, irrigators, tribes and reservoir operators all jockeying to find a chair before the music stops. That's when the TMDLs are implemented; allocating pollutant loads, responsibility and costs. Potential TMDLs include some of the most difficult and costly water quality constituents to improve. These are instream flow, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, sediments and temperature.

Considerable impasse has resulted from apparent imbalances in the initially floated TMDL approach. For example, very little or no responsibility has apparently been assigned to reservoir operations to help achieve WQ improvement; local Firms, Cities, Counties and ratepayers are expected to pick up the difference.

Some municipal and industrial dischargers are now aggressively pursuing Use Attainability Analysis (UAA). The UAA would reduce instream species and WQ targets and hence lower cost to many local entities. It is hard to believe local entities would be associated with such negative aspirations. Perhaps that explains why so little of this discussion has occurred on their websites.

Reservoir operators have a responsible role to play. The over-simplified retort of "Do you want us to take out the Dams" is not good enough. There are many other actions reservoir operators can take to improve water quality.

One action in particular is water quality trading. If the early flawed TMDL approach isn't corrected, WQ trading will not occur and cost effective environmental improvements will not be undertaken. Without all responsible trading parties represented in the TMDL, there is no potential for meaningful cost-effective trading.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding pollutant trading, or watershed-based trading, or the latest sling phrase, water quality trading. Whatever one calls it, the basic trading foundation is to provide a flexible cost-effective environmental solution. If initial allocations of pollutant loads are not equitably distributed, trading will not occur. Let's hope the final TMDLs give trading and other innovative approaches more of a fighting chance.