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Suppose you are worried that some particular activity threatens the water that you rely upon. In many cases, since there are so many possible polluters invading “our” water resources and since there are so many people who use a water source, the idea of arranging contracts between polluters and pollutees to get an optimum amount of pollution is on its face absurd. Furthermore, to the extent that farmers and frackers and factories and ethanol refineries and solar panel installers and municipal wastewater treatment plants and any other polluters of water do something to protect a watershed, the benefits do not entirely redound to them, they redound to large numbers of other people – and with little chance to capitalize on improvements to the water shed that you make, you end up making far less improvement than you would otherwise like to see.

But not all efforts to protect watersheds are doomed. In some cases, there are clear financial gains to be had by a small number of people who do something to protect water. Indeed, a very important exercise for those thinking more broadly of conservation efforts is to figure out how to tie the commercial interests of local residents or businesses or both to the conservation outcome. When it is in someone’s financial interest to provide goods that benefit others, then we are more likely to see those resources protected. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Perrier. Not too long ago, they decided to buy up a huge swath of land in France (10,000 hectares if I recall correctly) that was owned by farmers. The reason they did this is that they were worried that poor farming practices led to erosion and hence contamination of the watershed, and more important that farm runoff of fertilizers and pesticides and animal waste would contaminate the water supply. So Perrier, given that it sells water for a living, decided to buy all of the land. And what it did, in turn, was lease the land right back to the farmers with restrictive covenants about what kinds of farming practices would be acceptable on that land. This is a clear win-win-win situation … both Perrier and the farmers are better off than without the deal, and we outsiders also get a cleaner and healthier watershed: a public good privately provided. Here are some more examples. Here is a seminar on watershed protection.

But this is only possible when it is easy to tie a financial interest in the public good to some private benefit. Given this history (Perrier continues to employ this strategy), and the huge potential locked up in the power of exchange like this, I was once again disappointed to read a column from Grist:

I kid, Peggy, but chemical, flammable drinking water is not really a laughing matter, whether it’s going into our favorite brews or not. Exactly how hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, affects the water supply is a matter of some controversy. Hundreds of cases of contaminated water have been reported in places likePennsylvaniaTexasOhio, and West Virginia, but a recent study pinned the problem on leaky drilling wells, not fracking itself, and another one flat-out said tainted water from fracking is not a thing. Suffice it to say that lots of people are still worried about it, and lots of people who live near fracking operations are reporting scary things like health problems, dead livestock, and urine tests coming up positive for benzene.

We can count plenty of brewers (and vintners, and farmers) among the concerned — and with good reason. Beermasters depend on the unique qualities of their local waters to add that certain something, whether it’s crisp hoppiness from high calcium levels or smoothness from soft water; if you have to start treating polluted water, you might lose some of the je ne sais quoi in the process. If the contamination is too bad, of course, you can’t use the water at all.

As you note, Peggy, German brewers have been quite vocal about protecting the purity of their tasty hefeweizens from fracking-related chemicals. Quite a few of their American colleagues are similarly worried. Over on the East Coast, the folks at Cooperstown’s Brewery Ommegang have spoken out against fracking in New York and even speculated about moving or shutting down if the water supply went south. Brooklyn Brewery is also lobbying to protect NYC water, and Finger Lakes winemakers are also getting in on it. Out west, a group of 26 Colorado brewers sent a letter to their governor pressing for stronger oil and gas standards. There are also some breweries and wineries included in the anti-fracking group Chefs for the Marcellus.

Now remember, I live where I do PRECISELY because I love the environment, geography, climate, etc. here. I love the brewing and farming and winery scene and all that goes along with it. I love the historic charm of Western and Central New York towns, hopefully that allows me a little of the bona fides to be able to talk objectively about this. Notice the way Grist celebrates the kinds of actions Brewery Ommegang and the local vintners take? They are being celebrated for “speaking out.” They are being celebrated for sending letters. They are being celebrated for establishing anti-fracking groups. And that is all well and good. But of course what do you see NO mention of? Are there any suggestions by the authors at Grist that there are a whole host of demonstrably successful contracting options on the table to help deal with the threats to Finger Lakes watersheds? Are there any indications that these economically important breweries and wineries actually find it in their interests to go out and directly protect one of the most important inputs to their production processes? Is the situation in the Finger Lakes really much different than the situation Perrier faces? Sure, each brewery and winery is smaller, but there are many more of them, and they are all already in local and regional trade associations and voice a common voice when it comes to “anti-fracking” campaigns and such – so it’s not at all clear that the free-rider and holdout problems of collective contracting really apply here. Instead, what we seem to be saying is that these local businesses (which again, I HUGELY support and have a direct stake in myself here) should have other people bear the costs of an essential input into their livelihood. What we seem to be saying is that they should “fix the problems of government” by exercising their “voice” instead of actually doing something contractually to exercise their “choice.” It seems to me to be leaving off the table the opportunity to make earth altering improvements.

Now, the world is obviously a zillion shades of gray, and blogging doesn’t really permit one to appreciate that. Surely there are a mix of political and contractual options that would best work to protect the valuable watershed in the Finger Lakes. But it should be more than mildly upsetting to residents of Western and Central New York that the idea of contracting to protect the most important of our resources seems to be foreign to so many people, especially given its growing popularity. Another irony embedded in this discussion is to consider what role the “ban the bottle” people will end up playing in the conservation of watersheds. Imagine the ban the bottle campaign is hugely successful and so much so that it puts companies like Perrier out of business. What that actually does is threaten world watersheds since it reduces the opportunities for large rich entities to actually have a financial interest in protecting them. And now that Perrier has little interest in protecting its watershed, why not sell your farmland off to developers, industrial and otherwise? Of course, this is all “way out there” as the ban the bottle stuff isn’t going to actually happen, but it would be nice to see folks think through the consequences of their beliefs.

Finally, remember that I am told that if I don’t vote, I can’t “fucking complain.” I am told that if I do not vote, then I obviously don’t care what goes on in Washington. I am told that if I do not vote, I am the problem. All of that is to imply that one can do no good for our collective choice problems outside of the voting and political process. Guilty as charged I guess (did I vote this year?)

One Response to “Two Different Ways to Try to Protect Watersheds: An Illustration of Having No Right to Fu@k!ng Complain”

  1. Harry says:

    There have been occasions where tap water coming from the well (here in PA) has had methane come along with it, but in every case it has been because the water well was dug in a place, relatively shallow. After all, oil was discovered in Pennsylvania because.it had seeped to ground level.

    The fact is, the fracking boom has had a surprisingly uneventful safety record, something those paranoid brewers and vintners in the Finger Lakes should study.

    I’m a dues-paying member of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. Among the member benefits (including discounts on group insurance) is the Marcellus Shale Update, emailed to me weekly. It is a surprisingly disinterested digest of news stories having anything to do with fracking, not just here in Pennsylvania but throughout the world. Jeff Grove, the editor, gives one links to news stories both favorable and unfavorable to fracking.

    Now, there have been a few weeks where I may have missed this report, deleting it along with the sixty updates from the WSJ in between, but I am a regular reader and would have homed in on any story where the faucet exploded when somebody’s hand-rolled cigarette dipped near the sink. Man bites dog stories would have come to my attention.

    This is not to say there have been problems along the way when drilling down 6,000 feet and then horizontally, pumping down water and sand (fracking fluid is 99% sand and water) and then dealing with the salt that dissolves with the water, the salt of ancient seas. The casing, even though much more robust than the casing in my water well, is not flawless. I read news stories about local concern about casing, one I remember reported in the Pittsburgh area, another in Dallas. No problems have been identified worthy of the slightest concern. Think about it: any story that had a chance of hurting fracking would have been on the front page of The New York Times, the smoking gun to sink carbon energy.

    So, the vintners, brewers, and restaurateurs should take a deep breath, read more, and not be worried about the catastrophe they think will come if Governor Cuomo is not at the helm. Take a deep singer’s breath. If a local farmer is spreading manure, it is better to be there than on the Seventh Avenue subway.

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