After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

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Category Archives: Nutrient Trading


In 1972, in response to the nation’s worsening water quality, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, landmark legislation to curb pollution impairing rivers, lakes and streams across the United States. The CWA turned our waterways around by requiring many polluters to get permits that limited their discharges by requiring industries to install state-of-the-art technologies.

By making polluters limit, measure and reduce their waste, the CWA has dramatically improved the quality of countless bodies of water. But now a complex and unaccountable market-based, pollution trading system is being quietly introduced across the country, undermining the CWA, endangering waterways and drinking water, and threatening our communities – especially low-income and communities of color.

In a fundamental shift away from the tried and true CWA approach, water pollution trading allows industries to avoid installing technologies that reduce pollution and, instead, buy pollution “credits” from other sources that may or may not be controlling their own discharges. By allowing polluters to buy credits to keep dumping harmful discharges into our waterways, trading effectively replaces accountability with avoidance.

Agricultural operations are increasingly the most common source of these pollution credits. Unsustainable industrial farms are also the biggest source of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution in our waterways, contributing significantly to massive algae blooms in the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and other water bodies. While the CWA has done a commendable job forcing most industries to clean up their discharges, the agricultural lobby has managed to fend off effective, mandatory control of farm pollution.

For example, wastewater treatment plants and manufacturers have to regularly monitor, sample and document their own discharges to ensure that they’re not destroying local rivers and lakes; in contrast, industrial agricultural operations never have to monitor or sample to protect waterways. And while the CWA requires most other polluters to install pollution reduction controls, agriculture pollution control remains voluntary.

The way water pollution trading works is this: a power plant wants to dump more nitrogen into your local river, but can’t do so under the CWA because the river is already impaired and can’t handle any more pollution. So the power plant (or pollution credit brokers) goes out to industrial farms and convinces them to install “Best Management Practices” that are designed to reduce the nitrogen pollution coming from the operation. For every pound of nitrogen that a farm might reduce, the power plant gets a “credit” to discharge a pound of nitrogen into your polluted river. A Pennsylvania power plant is currently using this approach to dump tens of thousand of pounds of nitrogen pollution into the impaired Susquehanna River each year.

The theory is that the net discharge of pollution is still zero because one source reduced its load while another discharged more.

But theory doesn’t often line up with reality.

Agricultural pollution reductions are never truly measured or verified; credits are calculated based on modeling and guesswork. When point sources rely on these questionable credits to ignore their own discharge limits, net increases of pollution into local waterways are all too likely. In addition, such schemes pay agricultural polluters to voluntarily take steps they should be required to take to protect rivers, lakes and streams without profiting off the sale of pollution credits.

But the environmental justice implications of water pollution trading are among the most troubling aspects of this approach. Industrial polluters that buy credits are often located in poorer communities and communities of color. By allowing these polluters to avoid controlling their own discharges and continue to dump waste into local waterways by relying on credits, water pollution trading schemes threaten the drinking water and public health of these nearby, vulnerable communities.

The marketplace is fine for widgets, but it has no place in our waterways. We should all be opposing these pay-to-pollute approaches and demanding that polluters be held to accountable and responsible standards.

To read more about Water Pollution Trading and how it’s being implemented, read Food & Water Watch’s report here.

Submitted by Scott Edwards, Co-Director, Food & Water Justice, Food & Water Watch

Nutrient Trading: Our Concerns

(Posted by Bill Dennison)

Nutrient trading is the buying and selling of nutrient reduction credits that have a monetary value for the reduction of either nitrogen or phosphorus loading to the waterways. The concept of nutrient trading is to unleash free market forces for nutrient reduction strategies, similar to the approach used with carbon trading to address global warming.

Nutrient trading is a relatively new concept in ecosystem restoration that has been initiated for the Chesapeake Bay. Using the new Google analysis tool (‘ngrams’), nutrient trading only appears in the literature around 1990, but has increased rapidly, with a doubling of citations roughly every three years. There is excitement about nutrient trading as a new approach, and this excitement is evident in the various policy statements explaining nutrient trading. Along with this excitement, there is considerable skepticism also evident, and the issue is often emotive.

The Senior Bay Scientists and Policymakers group has reviewed the status of nutrient trading as applied to Chesapeake Bay restoration. We found that there are a variety of different definitions for nutrient trading being used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies, and that there is a lack of data and case studies to support or refute assertions about nutrient trading. The fact that nutrient trading is complicated, emotive and data poor makes this approach one that deserves close scrutiny and scientific rigor. Within the Senior Bay Scientists and Policymakers group, our nutrient trading report is a carefully crafted consensus between fairly intense and polarized viewpoints and it took quite a bit of effort to strike this balance.
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Nutrient Trading—Promise or Pitfall?

(Posted by Dawn Stoltzfus.)

With the watershed states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, W. Virginia and Delaware) and D.C. working to significantly reduce pollution to meet the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, nutrient trading is a hot topic. Some see trading as a way to reduce the challenging costs of Chesapeake Bay cleanup, and it looks good on paper—but there are serious scientific concerns about its practicality and water quality benefits, particularly with trades between nonpoint sources (like agriculture and stormwater runoff) and point sources (like wastewater treatment plants). Difficulty in accurately measuring trading’s effectiveness also seems like a big obstacle.Continue Reading