Square Pegs in Round Holes

Posted on February 7, 2014 by Richard Glick

The Western states face two reciprocating and overarching problems in water resources policy.  First, water is an increasingly scarce resource facing sharply competitive needs. Climate change is projected to put even more strain on water supplies. Second, most streams listed as water-quality impaired in the West are designated as such for issues related to the biological integrity of the waterway. The combination of aggressive human use of waters, manipulation of stream channels, and failure to control agricultural runoff has resulted in widespread degradation of aquatic habitat.

The primary impediment to addressing these related issues arises from dated legal constructs designed to achieve different objectives in eras with markedly different economies. In other words, trying to apply these constructs to today’s problems is like attempting to fit square pegs into round holes.

The doctrine of prior appropriation governs water rights everywhere in the West.  It was developed in the 19th century to promote mining and agriculture—both water intensive enterprises—in arid climates. The doctrine provides that the first to physically take control of the water and put it to beneficial use has priority over later comers. Thus, the oldest water rights with the highest priorities are mostly agricultural, and many streams have become over-appropriated during the past century. So where does a growing community go for new water supplies? And what about maintaining sufficient high-quality flows instream for healthy fisheries?

The problem is made more acute by the formidable costs and regulatory uncertainty of developing major water storage projects. Many cities seek to acquire or share in old agricultural water rights through direct payments to water right holders or they finance irrigation system improvements for more efficient use of water. Such water marketing approaches free up water for municipal use, while reducing pressure to remove still more water from oversubscribed streams. But if a legislature could have anticipated then what we know now, might it a century ago have considered systems that allocate water based more on maximum public value and efficient use, rather than simply priority in time?

The Clean Water Act was enacted over 40 years ago to address toxic discharges of industrial and sewage wastewater to rivers and lakes.  Dramatic events like the spontaneous ignition of the Cuyahoga River drove public demand for government intervention, leading to the new law. The Act has done a remarkable job of cleaning up end-of-pipe discharges (point sources), but has largely failed at controlling more diffuse sources of pollution (nonpoint sources) from stream channelization, devegetation of riparian habitat and agricultural runoff. Thus, many streams today are impaired by turbidity, nutrient loading, and higher temperatures.

Since the Act does not provide enforcement tools for nonpoint sources, regulatory agencies use the authority available to them to ratchet up controls on point sources. One solution to this problem is water-quality trading, in which a point source permittee can take watershed-restorative action upstream to correct a nonpoint pollution problem in order to meet escalating permit requirements. This approach can yield better ecological outcomes at lower cost. But if Congress were drafting the Clean Water Act today, any rational approach would address the problem of diffuse sources of pollution.

It seems unrealistic to expect substantive changes to either the law of prior appropriation or the Clean Water Act any time soon. Aside from the politics, changes to prior appropriation raise significant constitutional questions to the extent property rights are affected. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue looking for creative workarounds. This circumstance makes interesting work for lawyers, but is hardly the optimal approach to effective water resource use and protection.

EPA Tries to Silence Employees Who (Weakly) Criticize Cap-And-Trade

Posted on November 11, 2009 by Rodney Brown, Jr.

Obama’s EPA finds itself embroiled in a controversy that recalls the Bush Administration: trying to control what the agency’s employees can say about climate change. Today’s controversy is more limited, and more nuanced, than earlier ones. EPA is no longer asking its employees to deny that climate change exists. Instead, EPA has asked two of its attorneys to stop identifying themselves as EPA experts when they publicly criticize a cap-and-trade system for regulating greenhouse gases. Still, I wonder why EPA cares.

EPA previously allowed the attorneys to criticize cap-and-trade as private citizens. The two wrote letters and opinion pieces claiming cap-and-trade doesn’t work, primarily because companies can buy “offsets” that allow them to continue operations without reducing their emissions. They claim a carbon tax would work better than cap-and-trade.

Their writings have not had much effect on the debate in Congress and elsewhere. So the two recently switched from the written word to YouTube, posting a carefully produced video in which they more assertively cite their EPA credentials and experience to justify their critique of cap-and-trade. And as Grist recently noted, EPA took the bait.

EPA should stop worrying about the two attorneys. The two fail to recognize that cap-and-trade works fine when it’s done right. In fact, EPA itself runs one of the most successful cap-and-trade programs in the world. Several years ago, EPA needed to reduce smog in the eastern US. Instead of using typical command-and-control regulations, EPA created the NOx Budget Trading Program. Just last month, EPA released a report on the results achieved by that program. According to EPA, “summertime NOx emissions from power plants and large industrial sources were down by 62 percent compared to year 2000 levels and 75 percent lower than in 1990.”

And the emitters were able to achieve these reductions at a lower cost by trading with other emitters who had cheaper options for compliance. Smithsonian magazine reported a recent estimate that businesses paid only $3 billion to achieve emission reductions that would have cost them $25 billion under traditional command-and-control regulation.

The two attorneys don’t even need to worry about companies finding ways to avoid compliance with the system. Last year, only two emitters failed to comply out of 2,568, even then by only a modest amount. This is not a system full of loopholes.

Finally, the two attorneys ignore the fact that their own agency, under the Obama administration, will get to write the rules for how companies comply with a carbon cap-and-trade system. Both the Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry bills require EPA to write rules regulating how companies can use “offsets” to comply with the system. Surely the agency can write rules that make this cap-and-trade system work as well as the NOx system the agency already runs.

And one more thing: As Grist reports, many experts think that the alternative — a carbon tax — may not achieve the emission reductions we need. We can only guess what carbon price might lead to the right amount of emission reductions. We’ll get the tax revenues we predict, but not necessarily the carbon reductions.

So the two attorneys should lighten up on their criticisms. But even if they don’t, EPA should stop worrying about them so much.