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.


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


  1. As a former president of the Maryland Conservation Council, our organization has been opposed to the so called “cap and trade” approach to solving water pollution. I’ve consistently called it a “crap shoot!” and indeed it is. It should never have been an option for solving the problem of degraded waters. It is still a “crap shoot” and should not be employed as a tool for cleaning up our water ways!