Water Quality Trading: A Case for Collaborative Watershed Management


Addressing complex water quality issues in agricultural areas is no simple task and water quality strategies that integrate both urban and agricultural needs are often elusive and lack the resources needed to truly transform watershed health on a large scale. In addition, many strategies lack community buy-in and the stewardship resources needed to ensure the long-term success of restored landscapes. Furthermore, regulatory silos and fragmented funding sources frustrate our ability to use a “Systems Approach” to address water quality issues at a watershed scale. 

In spite of these obstacles, working with local agricultural and urban partners, Clean Water Services was able to create an innovative integrated watershed- scale restoration strategy capable of leveraging multiple local, state and federal resources. In the agricultural community this strategy is delivered through a voluntary incentive-based program that simultaneously addresses multiple issues such as nutrients/pesticides, irrigation efficiency, instream flow, soil health, bank erosion, riparian habitat, and water quality friendly farm practices. 

During the past decade more than 70 farms have transformed more than 35 river miles in the Tualatin Watershed using this voluntary incentive- based program.  There are currently more than 30 farms on the wait list and basin-wide the community is now planting more than a million native plants in a single year (http://www.jointreeforall.org).  An equal number of river miles have been transformed in the urban areas using other urban incentive programs.

Many factors contributed to the success of this program and include:

  • A “Systems Approach “ was used to develop and implement the program
  • Delivery through a voluntary incentive-based program
  • Development of strong rural/urban partnerships to implement the strategy
  • Active support and resources from SWCD, NRCS, FSA and CWS
  • An active adaptive management strategy allowed the program to grow and evolve
  • The use of water quality trading to catalyze program develop and leverage additional resources

As we consider the pressing agricultural issues of the Mississippi Watershed and Gulf of Mexico we have an opportunity to weave together existing local, state and federal funding streams into landscape-scale strategies that address multiple water quality objectives.  This approach is no simple task but the work in the Tualatin Watershed clearly demonstrates that even in a silo rich regulatory environment, a “System Approach” can be designed and implemented in a vibrant agricultural community.   Finally, bringing watershed management strategies together at scale, requires that we look beyond the Clean Water Act and find the partners needed to implement and finance our collective efforts.

As Watershed Management Department Director for Clean Water Services of Washington County, Ore., Bruce Roll manages staff working on water resources infrastructure, watershed ecology, and policy and marketplace development.  Prior to joining Clean Water Services, he served as assistant director of public works for Whatcom County in Bellingham, Washington where he oversaw stormwater management and water resources protection programs.  He has over 20 years experience protecting public health and the environment.

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