Rob Harmon at TEDxRanier: How the market can keep streams flowing

Michael Giberson

Rob Harmon gave a TEDx talk last fall in Seattle on a market mechanism that links willing buyers and willing sellers in a way that protects in-stream water flows and helps restore stream ecosystems. Harmon was formerly with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) in Portland, Oregon, where he was a developer of the Water Restoration Certificates program.

The TED talk was just posted on the TED website, but a little searching around reveals that the smart water/markets/environment people were already aware. TEDx had the video up on youtube a few months ago, as Shawn Regan of PERC noticed in December.

In December 2009, David Zetland interviewed Rob Harmon about the program. [Zetland comments at Aguanomics; Link to MP3 audio.]

Here is bit from the Zetland interview beginning just after the 9:00 minute mark, where Harmon describes his visit to a stream that would have been dry in August but for the water restoration certificate program:

So, I decided this is a nice view from the bridge – you get the long view, you can see for a ways, you get the beaver dam.

But let’s go down and look right at the water. I walk down and I brought my camera with me and I looked in the water and I saw movement. And a stared and I stared and I stared, and I suddenly focused at the right depth and there were hundreds of baby steelheads. […]

Ordinarily, for the last ten, twenty, fifty years there would be no water for them to hatch into, they’d just die. […]

So, basically, here is habitat for all of these fish that ordinarily would not have habitat. It was a very sort of , it was a very sort of rubber meets the road sort of experience for me, sort of fish meet the water.

It went from the process, for me, of writing the contract, putting a business plan together, figuring out the website and the water calculator there on the website, and all of the things you do to make a business like this work, to actually seeing the results right before my eyes. That was very fulfilling, really nice to see actual ecological benefits right in front of me. (Unofficial transcript, parts edited out, use at your own risk.)

See also Harmon’s blog post about his trip to this site.

An interesting element here is that no laws needed to be changed to allow the program to work. The program works with the existing water laws in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. But for decades that law had led to regulation, extensive litigation, and dry stream beds because owners of water rights had to use their water rights in order to preserve them, and using involved withdrawing the water from the stream.

Until this program came along, there was no mechanism to allow water rights holders to use their rights to preserve in-stream flows. BEF does the necessary legwork: identifying streams at risk, tracking water flows, issuing certificates, and so on all the way up to bringing together willing buyers and willing sellers.

ASIDE: Next time a misguided free-market economist tells me markets can’t be designed, they can only emerge spontaneously, I am going to point to this example.

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