Rob Harmon: How the market can keep streams flowing
November 4, 2010
With streams and rivers drying up because of over-usage, Rob Harmon has implemented an ingenious market mechanism to bring back the water. Farmers and beer companies find their fates intertwined in the intriguing century-old tale of Prickly Pear Creek.
(Filmed at TEDxRainier.)
- Natural resources expert
Rob Harmon is an expert on energy and natural resources policy -- looking at smart ways to manage carbon, water and the energy we use every day. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This is a river.
This is a stream.
This is a river.
This is happening all over the country.
There are tens of thousands of miles
of dewatered streams in the United States.
On this map,
the colored areas represent water conflicts.
Similar problems are emerging in the east as well.
The reasons vary state to state,
but mostly in the details.
There are 4,000 miles of dewatered streams
in Montana alone.
They would ordinarily support fish and other wildlife.
They're the veins of the ecosystem,
and they're often empty veins.
I want to tell you the story
of just one of these streams
because it's an archetype for the larger story.
This is Prickly Pear Creek.
It runs through a populated area
from East Helena to Lake Helena.
It supports wild fish
including cutthroat, brown
and rainbow trout.
Nearly every year
for more than a hundred years,
it's looked like this in the summer.
How did we get here?
Well, it started back in the late 1800s
when people started settling in places like Montana.
In short, there was a lot of water
and there weren't very many people.
But as more people showed up wanting water,
the folks who were there first got a little concerned,
and in 1865, Montana passed its first water law.
It basically said, everybody near the stream
can share in the stream.
Oddly, a lot of people showed up wanting to share the stream,
and the folks who were there first
got concerned enough to bring out their lawyers.
There were precedent-setting suits
in 1870 and 1872,
both involving Prickly Pear Creek.
And in 1921,
the Montana Supreme Court
ruled in a case involving Prickly Pear
that the folks who were there first
had the first, or "senior water rights."
These senior water rights are key.
The problem is that all over the west now
it looks like this.
Some of these creeks
have claims for 50 to 100 times more water
than is actually in the stream.
And the senior water rights holders,
if they don't use their water right,
they risk losing their water right,
along with the economic value that goes with it.
So they have no incentive to conserve.
So it's not just about the number of people;
the system itself creates a disincentive to conserve
because you can lose your water right if you don't use it.
So after decades of lawsuits
and 140 years, now, of experience,
we still have this.
It's a broken system.
There's a disincentive to conserve,
because, if you don't use your water right,
you can lose your water right.
And I'm sure you all know, this has created significant conflicts
between the agricultural and environmental communities.
Okay. Now I'm going to change gears here.
Most of you will be happy to know
that the rest of the presentation's free,
and some of you'll be happy to know that it involves beer.
There's another thing happening around the country,
which is that companies are starting to get concerned
about their water footprint.
They're concerned about securing an adequate supply of water,
they're trying to be really efficient with their water use,
and they're concerned about how their water use
affects the image of their brand.
Well, it's a national problem,
but I'm going to tell you another story from Montana,
and it involves beer.
I bet you didn't know, it takes about 5 pints of water
to make a pint of beer.
If you include all the drain,
it takes more than a hundred pints of water to make a pint of beer.
Now the brewers in Montana
have already done a lot
to reduce their water consumption,
but they still use millions of gallons of water.
I mean, there's water in beer.
So what can they do
about this remaining water footprint
that can have serious effects
on the ecosystem?
These ecosystems are really important
to the Montana brewers and their customers.
After all, there's a strong correlation
between water and fishing,
and for some, there's a strong correlation
between fishing and beer.
So the Montana brewers and their customers are concerned,
and they're looking for some way to address the problem.
So how can they address this remaining water footprint?
Remember Prickly Pear.
Up until now,
business water stewardship
has been limited to measuring and reducing,
and we're suggesting that the next step
is to restore.
Remember Prickly Pear.
It's a broken system.
You've got a disincentive to conserve,
because if you don't use your water right, you risk losing your water right.
Well, we decided to connect these two worlds --
the world of the companies
with their water footprints
and the world of the farmers
with their senior water rights on these creeks.
In some states,
senior water rights holders
can leave their water in-stream
while legally protecting it from others
and maintaining their water right.
it is their water right,
and if they want to use that water right
to help the fish grow in the stream,
it's their right to do so.
But they have no incentive to do so.
So, working with local water trusts,
we created an incentive to do so.
We pay them to leave their water in-stream.
That's what's happening here.
This individual has made the choice
and is closing this water diversion,
leaving the water in the stream.
He doesn't lose the water right,
he just chooses to apply that right,
or some portion of it,
to the stream, instead of to the land.
Because he's the senior water rights holder,
he can protect the water from other users in the stream.
He gets paid to leave the water in the stream.
This guy's measuring the water
that this leaves in the stream.
We then take the measured water,
we divide it into thousand-gallon increments.
Each increment gets a serial number and a certificate,
and then the brewers and others
buy those certificates
as a way to return water
to these degraded ecosystems.
The brewers pay
to restore water to the stream.
It provides a simple, inexpensive
and measurable way
to return water to these degraded ecosystems,
while giving farmers an economic choice
and giving businesses concerned about their water footprints
an easy way to deal with them.
After 140 years of conflict
and 100 years of dry streams,
a circumstance that litigation and regulation
has not solved,
we put together a market-based,
willing buyer, willing seller solution --
a solution that does not require litigation.
It's about giving
folks concerned about their water footprints
a real opportunity
to put water where it's critically needed,
into these degraded ecosystems,
while at the same time
a meaningful economic choice
about how their water is used.
These transactions create allies, not enemies.
They connect people rather than dividing them.
And they provide needed economic support for rural communities.
And most importantly, it's working.
We've returned more than four billion gallons of water
to degraded ecosystems.
We've connected senior water rights holders
with brewers in Montana,
with hotels and tea companies in Oregon
and with high-tech companies that use a lot of water in the Southwest.
And when we make these connections,
we can and we do
turn this into this.
Thank you very much.
- Natural resources expert
Rob Harmon is an expert on energy and natural resources policy -- looking at smart ways to manage carbon, water and the energy we use every day.Why you should listen
Taking the true measure of our environmental footprint is something that Rob Harmon has been doing for years. Starting as an energy auditor in Massachusetts, Harmon went on to manage an international marketing effort in the wind energy industry and, in 2000, develop and launch the first carbon calculator on the Internet.
Harmon joined Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) in 1999, and is credited with developing their Green Tag program. In 2004, he was awarded the national Green Power Pioneer Award for his introduction of the retail Green Tag (Renewable Energy Certificates) and his ongoing efforts to build a thriving and credible Green Tag market in the United States. He also conceptualized and directed the development of BEF's national Solar 4R Schools program. His latest venture is the creation of BEF's Water Restoration Certificate business line, which utilizes voluntary markets to restore critically de-watered ecosystems. He recently contributed chapters to the book Voluntary Carbon Markets: A Business Guide to What They Are and How They Work. Rob left BEF in November 2010 to explore his next venture, ConvenientOpportunities.com.
The original video is available on TED.com