BEF builds new model for water offsets

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Water restoration certificates, Prickly Pear Creek

A water restoration project in Montana: Prickly Pear Creek before Bonneville Environmental Foundation's WRC program paid water users to keep the stream flowing.

It's fairly common practice for green-minded businesses to purchase offsets or certificates to make up for the carbon their operations emit. The money goes toward the development of clean energy sources or to maintain carbon-storing forests.

Now, a Portland pioneer in the market for renewable energy certificates is taking the same concept to wetland restoration.

Nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which sold the country's first retail renewable energy certificate in 2000, started selling water restoration certificates — WRCs — late last summer.

The program allows those who consume water to return an amount of water equal to what they’ve used back to the environment. One certificate, which costs $1, represents 1,000 gallons of water restored to a river or stream.

"Companies were already looking at their carbon footprints and their energy footprints and they were just starting to look at their water footprint," said Rob Harmon, chief innovation officer for Bonneville Environmental Foundation. "I thought, 'Can we capitalize on that and put some water back into these hammered ecosystems?'"

The basis of the water restoration certificate program is the fact that in the Western United States, water laws often motivate those who hold the rights to the water to use it — regardless of whether they need it.

By establishing a voluntary market through water restoration certificates, the foundation was able to establish a pot of money to pay water rights holders to keep their water in the stream rather than using it for irrigation.

Through the program, the foundation has active water restoration projects in Oregon and Montana. The projects are vetted by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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