A clean, abundant water supply is critical to health and well-being – without drinking water and enough water supply for businesses and agriculture, there is no way that our communities can thrive and be resilient. Healthy watersheds play a huge role in this, but many water sources are threatened by drought, depletion, pollution, and development. In Eugene, Oregon, the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) is taking big steps to ensure future water quality, and this innovative new approach to protecting riparian zones is setting an important precedent for water utilities.

EWEB is Oregon’s largest customer-owned utility. With water rights to withdraw 75 million gallons a day from the McKenzie River and a daily capacity to treat over 80 million gallons, the utility supplies roughly 200,000 people with drinking water.  EWEB customers enjoy the nation’s highest quality drinking water and currently pay some of the lowest rates in the region. However, future landscape and land use changes along the McKenzie River’s lower reaches threaten to damage water quality and increase treatment and remediation costs.

To tackle this issue, EWEB is piloting a forward-thinking incentive program known as the Pure Water Partnership (PWP). The PWP aims to protect water quality for human consumption by supporting responsible stewardship of upstream riparian areas. The PWP is encouraging and even rewarding landowners for implementing management practices that benefit water quality. Getting landowners to protect these critical areas has a number of direct benefits for EWEB’s customers – from lower capital costs and operating expenses for water treatment to ecosystem services like salmon habit and flood protection.

Recognizing these benefits, EWEB has moved forward with source water protection with the PWP. The program will provide landowners with an incentive for leaving riparian areas undeveloped. The better the shape their land is in, the more money landowners can receive for not developing. Though the incentives are not yet determined, the rewards for landowners may include financial incentives such as cash payments or vouchers for in-kind services such as landscape plans or riparian area plantings.

Earth Economics has been working with EWEB this year to inform the voluntary incentives program through several assessments - by determining the value and benefits to EWEB and its ratepayers of water quality functions and other ecosystem services provided by healthy riparian corridors in the McKenzie watershed, and by estimating the economic value and return on investment of the PWP program. Our analysis focused on four main values – carbon sequestration and storage, and three water quality related values – sediment, shade, and nutrients.  The work has involved partnership with other key organizations – Ecotrust, our primary partner, provided all of the GIS mapping and biophysical data, including collecting shade and carbon data. Other important contributions have been provided by the Lane Council of Governments and The Freshwater Trust.

So far, the PWP has been well received. Voluntary participation is a welcome idea, and EWEB has put in a lot of work to engage with landowners and help them see the value of protecting these areas.  An incentive-based approach to source water protection is certainly a more attractive alternative than adding land use regulations.

Banner Photo Credit: Janies Child via Flickr