The state of water in America? It sucks, says activitst Whitworth

Joe Whitworth, a freshwater and river conservationist, says he's an optimist.

But talk to him, and he reels off some really pessimistic freshwater facts. An EPA study recently stated that half of American rivers are in 'poor biological condition'. In this country there are 3.5 million miles of rivers, and 1.7 million of those miles are not functioning as rivers should. There are 28 threatened salmon species. None are currently 'recovered'. And, Whitworth says, working as we do now, none ever will be.

As head of the Portland-based The Freshwater Trust, Whitworth is the first to admit that most of what the environmental and sustainability movements are achieving is inadequate: "window dressing rather than results." While the state of Oregon has a fairly good record for river restoration, completing about 600 projects in a year, each project averages less than one mile of restoration/repair. Doing the math is depressing.

"Six hundred into 80,000 - 80,000 being the stream miles that need to be worked on in Oregon. That equals..never in terms of getting to the goal," Whitworth said.

The problem for the hundreds of thousands of conservationists in the U.S., he said, is that the system of addressing the problems is completely broken. The environmental movement - Environmentalism 1.0 - failed.

© Freshwater Trust

"It's hard to say without being mean, but the environmental movement needs to be saved from itself," he said. "The reason we can't get work done is an outgrowth of what the environmental movement knows how to do - put in procedures and make sure everyone follows them."

The idea might have been good, but the reality has been an unending series of lawsuits that leads to more of an action standstill than a quantum leap in what Whitworth says we need, which is natural systems resilience.

"What we've needed to do is shift from that procedure-based worldview to an outcomes-based worldview, and understand that other tools can get us there," he said. "That's a fundamental shift necessary. But until we can create the proper accounting whereby values are assigned [to natural systems] and rules for tradeoffs are made..." Whitworth said we are not going to get ahead of problems.

Whitworth's idea of environmental accounting isn't unique - but the fact that he has turned his NGO from one that continues to just do work that is depressingly insufficient to one that ruthlessly looked at its own shortcomings is refreshing.

The Freshwater Trust built a 'toolbox' with data-analyzing software that Whitworth said can jump start the speed of conservation. Whitworth is hoping that it is these new set of tools - not just his but tools others too that smartly use the masses of new data available to us to do 'quantitative conservation' - will usher in something akin Environmentalism 2.0.

The Trust's big tool is water quality trading (WQT). Similar to carbon trading, WQT lets an entity that needs to meet water quality standards meet those by buying pollution reductions from another source, for a lower cost.

Whitworth said his organization's most successful example of WQT is along Oregon's Applegate River, where thousands of new native trees will be helping cool the water with their shade. The City of Medford, while fulfilling its obligations for keeping river temperatures down near its White City wastewater treatment plant, is basically paying for the shady trees that landowners along a five-mile stretch are planting.

Normally, the wastewater plant would have to build chillers to cool warmer water released to the river, to the tune of about $16 million. With the Freshwater penned deal, they'll pay about $8 millon to get the same water-cooling effects.

This kind of deal-making, Whitworth said, can accelerate the pace and scale of restoration and natural systems protection.

Where do water drinkers fit in to this brave new Enviro 2.0 equation? Whitworth says: "All of us - environmentalists - need to have the courage to say what we are doing is not working. Know what the current state of water in America is? It sucks. That's chronic. I think we also need a moment - a poster child event - where people see that what we are doing now doesn't add up for natural systems - and then everybody needs to get together and say here's a workable plan to go forward."

Tags: Conservation | Water Conservation | Water Crisis