Author Archives | Jessica Musengezi

Using Payments for Watershed Services for Conservation

Ecosystem services markets reveal the value of benefits provided by natural systems and provide incentives for landowners to provide more of these beneficial services. Water has emerged as a strong rallying point for the development of ecosystem service payment initiatives. The State of Watershed Payments report released by Ecosystem Marketplace catalogued 288 watershed payment programs and markets across the world. These initiatives focus on getting the beneficiaries of ecosystem services to pay for the services they consume, and incentivizing producers of services to implement practices and strive for outcomes that improve the quality and quantity of water services.

Water markets have been driven by regulatory standards designating acceptable levels of water quality such as the Clean Water Act and financial or in-kind incentives to land managers to adopt practices linked improvements in water quality.  Voluntary programs have been taking hold in the U.S.  The classic example is the New York City and the Catskills watershed program in which the New York City paid upstream farmers in the watershed to acquire land and implement practices to reduce sediment rather than pay for construction of an expensive new water treatment plant. More recently the Cities of Santa Fe and Denver have implemented similar models protecting upstream water supply.

The Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Restoration Project funds costs of land management in the watershed. In an area that is mostly forested, fire was identified as the biggest threat to water quality. The cost to maintain restored forest for 20 years was estimated at $4.3 million, whereas the savings of avoiding a future fire amount to $22 million – you do the math, the forest enhancement clearly saves money for the taxpayers of Santa Fe.

In Denver, Colorado the model was scaled up to include five watersheds encompassing two forests in 2010. Denver Water, the utility company, and the Forest Service entered into a 5-year $ 33 million partnership to implement projects to reduce the risk of wildfire, restoring wild areas and, minimize erosion and sedimentation of reservoirs.

Challenges still remain the biggest among these is the issue of measurable outcomes. While the amount of improvement in water quality from specific practices is not clear, these programs have been able to get around this by basing the value of improved water quality on the land management costs (which were clearly defined). For example, in Santa Fe the program was preceded by an environmental impact assessment in the watershed.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.