Water | Ecotrope

Obama: Medford Has The Right Idea

Ecotrope | March 6, 2012 1:20 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:32 p.m.

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The City of Medford can earn thermal credits to offset warm water discharges from its wastewater treatment plant by paying landowners to plant shady trees along the banks of the Rogue River. In a speech on Friday, President Obama said the program – which is also underway in the Tualatin River Basin, and in the works for Ashland and Eugene – is an example of a win-win for business and the environment.

The City of Medford can earn thermal credits to offset warm water discharges from its wastewater treatment plant by paying landowners to plant shady trees along the banks of the Rogue River. In a speech on Friday, President Obama said the program – which is also underway in the Tualatin River Basin, and in the works for Ashland and Eugene – is an example of a win-win for business and the environment.

At Friday’s White House Conference on Conservation, President Barack Obama tipped his hat to Medford’s new thermal trading program, which he held up as an example of a win-win for business and the environment.

He didn’t complicate his speech by using the rather obscure name of the program. Instead, he explained it in story form, like this:

“A while back, I heard a story about the Rogue River in Oregon. Every year, the Rogue is filled with salmon swimming upstream to spawn. But because factories were allowing warm water to run back into the river, the temperature was becoming too high for the salmon to survive.

So to fix the problem, the town could have required the company to buy expensive cooling equipment, but that would have hurt the local economy. Instead, they decided to pay farmers and ranchers to plant trees along the banks of the river, and that helped to cool the water at a fraction of the cost. So it worked for business; it worked for farmers; it worked for salmon.

And those are the kinds of ideas that we need in this country -– ideas that preserve our environment, protect our bottom line, and connect more Americans to the great outdoors.”

That’s a rather loose interpretation of the facts that led to the creation of the city of Medford’s cold-water credit system, according to John Gasik, water quality program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in Medford.

In reality, it was a regional water treatment plant owned by the city of Medford that was releasing too much warm water. To meet temperature standards designed to protect salmon and other cold-water fish, the city had a few options:

  • Install water chillers to cool down the treated wastewater before releasing it into the Rogue.
  • Build ponds to store the wastewater until the weather was cool enough to release it into the Rogue.
  • Or, for $10 million less than either of those options, the city could pay landowners to plant trees along their stretch of the river to would shade the stream and cool down the water temperature.

The program was only approved in November, said Gasik, so thus far the city doesn’t even know which landowners might want to make some money by planting trees along their section of the river. The city is contracting with The Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit that will handle the logistics of paying landowners to do the planting and tallying the “thermal credits” earned for water-cooling action. The nonprofit will make sure the thermal credits offset the warm water the city discharges into the Rogue.

Gasik said a private wastewater treatment company, Cleanwater Services, has been running a similar program in the Tualatin River Basin for several years, based on a pilot program funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002. President Obama didn’t mention that part.

But later he did fold the idea into a much broader message about the false accusations of environment vs. economy tradeoffs:

“The bottom line is this:  There will always be people in this country who say we’ve got to choose between clean air and clean water and a growing economy, between doing right by our environment and putting people back to work.  And I’m here to tell you that is a false choice. That is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children.”

And if you need proof, he implied, just look at Medford. They’ve got the idea.

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