Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: Water

Water is one of those resources that we tend to use on a daily basis without a moment's thought, complain about when it comes raining down from above, and yet require to support the systems that keep us alive. One of the sectors that uses and impacts water in large quantities is agriculture, our food source.

Normally I would expound upon the exorbitant water uses of certain crop and livestock systems, like paddy rice and beef cattle. If you are interested how much water that chunk of cheese is costing you, check out the water footprints of major foot items. I am also not going to dwell on the potential wars to be fought over water as drier regions become drier and drinking and irrigation water becomes more scarce.

But I have become newly inspired by a topic I am exploring at work, payment for watershed services (PWS). Yes, I see some of your blank stares. Well, the concept is very simple in theory. First of all, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, "a watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place." So, when we talk about PWS, we are interested in finding financial mechanisms to make people who impact that area of land inclined to keep it healthy and functional.

Farmers use all sorts of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers (not to mention the water itself) that runoff the land and into waterways. The 'cides then poison aquatic plants and animals. Fertilizers provide nutrients that are often limiting in the water, which in turn spur growth of algae and the like, using up all the oxygen and killing off the organisms that usually chill in the waterway (eg. the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico). However, the impacts are often downstream and standard farm practices are established and appear to make economic sense.

This is where PWS comes in. Through incentive schemes, farmers are more inclined to adopt ecologically friendly land management practices. Approaches range from government payments to implement conservation measures such as buffer zones or more efficient input/chemical applications to eco-certifications. The classic example is how restoring the Catskills-Delaware Watershed saved New York from constructing a water filtration facility. Another interesting take is the Salmon-Safe Farm certification sweeping the Pacific Northwest. Because fish spawning is such an integral part of the economy and culture of the PNW, this label is really starting to grow, ensuring that farms are more efficient irrigators, restore streamside vegetation, and use less chemical inputs on the farm.

For more on this emerging market, check out this major publication at Ecosystem Marketplace. And don't forget to sign the petition to bring safe drinking water to the world's poor!

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