'Nutrient trading' for watersheds proposed in House bill

A bill in the Arkansas House of Representatives would enable organizations to trade nutrients they discharge into a watershed with another organization in exchange for money or some other service.

Springdale Water Utilities Director Heath Ward, a supporter of the bill, said a wastewater utility that's having trouble meeting compliance standards, for instance, could send excess nutrients to another portion of a watershed that's well under permit limits.

Or the entity struggling to meet compliance standards could spend money on another, cheaper method of reducing pollution instead of updating its facilities or equipment, proponents said.

Such moves would be legal under House Bill 1067, as long as the organization stays below its maximum level of nutrients allowed under its permit. The bill has been sponsored by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, and co-sponsored Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock.

Skeptics of the bill have questioned how the trades would be tracked and measured to ensure compliance.

Ward, who is chairman of the Arkansas Wastewater Managers Association -- which has been drafting the bill since July -- said trades would be done with the supervision of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's appellate body, the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.

How any arrangements would be made and measured would be up to the agreeing parties, Ward said.

"Shutting down or curtailing wastewater alone is not going to fix a problem if nutrients are an issue," Ward said. "What if we could pool our resources and we found other projects in the watershed that would essentially help clean up the watershed more effectively and at less of a cost?"

He added, "When you have a bunch of people finger-pointing, they spend a bunch of money and end up going to court."

Nutrient-trading programs already exist in some states to address specific bodies of water that have had pollution issues, including in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky -- with a focus on the Ohio River Basin -- and Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, with a focus on addressing the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

North Carolina has established the Neuse River Compliance Association, which is a nutrient-trading group designed to meet standards on nitrogen. The Neuse River has been noted for its pollution by environmentalists opposed to hog-farm waste-disposal methods in the eastern portion of the state that they say have contributed to the problem.

Ward said no other state in Arkansas' region of the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, has a nutrient-trading program.

He said that nutrient trading would be done without the same crisis situation or pressure to comply that's existed in other states, although he acknowledges a rocky history between Northwest Arkansas and Oklahoma in regard to the Illinois River Watershed.

Beaver Watershed Alliance officials are already considering ways to use the bill, if passed, to get utilities or other entities to agree to restore stream banks, the degradation of which Executive Director John Pennington said is the biggest contributor to sediment and phosphorous pollution in Beaver Lake.

As the bill is now, Pennington said it was "innovative."

Collins said the bill would allow partnerships that should be mutually beneficial as an alternative to creating regulations and "rather than a hammer being the only thing we have and a nail being the only thing we pound."

"Maybe there's a win-win-win where there's less phosphorus in the watershed, where the regulated person is spending less money ... and the landowner is benefiting because of [lower pollution]," Collins said.

At the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission meeting in January, commission members questioned elements of nutrient trading, including how trades would be monitored and measured to ensure that they were in compliance with allowed levels.

"How in the world are you going to measure ... just look up at the sky and guess?" asked Joseph Bates, an appointee from the Arkansas Department of Health, where he is deputy state health officer and chief science officer.

Allan Gates, representing Springdale Water Utilities at the meeting, told Bates that measuring would be "do-able" and that a person would likely be delegated to do it.

Randy Young, executive director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, asked if the "advisory panel" mentioned in the bill would limit the pollution commission's authority.

Ward said the advisory panel would help establish the trading program.

Collins said the panel would give recommendations to the Environmental Quality Department and that the department would have final say.

Ryan Benefield, interim director of the Environmental Quality Department, did not speak for or against the bill at the meeting and was not available for an interview Friday.

Collins said the bill could go to the House public health committee as early as Thursday.

Ward said the bill is an attempt to do something "new and different" to address an old issue between environmental groups and the utilities and businesses that they want to be cleaner.

"Everybody's under pressure to clean up their act," Ward said.

Metro on 02/09/2015