In last month’s installment, we described a well-managed property like a diversified stock portfolio. All the natural assets available are used to create financial rewards without relying on real estate development to fund your future. Conservation easements, mitigation banks, and nutrient banks all help to create layers of value in your portfolio. The last two programs are designed to reward a landowner for helping improve the water quality that flows from the land to larger bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay. Using the wide-spread root structure of trees, nutrient banks filter the nutrient “pollution” (fertilizers like phosphorous and nitrogen) that runs off fields into nearby streams and tributaries. The trees’ roots keep it on the land where you want it, not in the river system where you don’t.

You may ask, “How do I benefit?” More on that in a moment. But first, to best understand the value of the programs that help solve the problem, you have to understand how rivers got us to this point. To understand how rivers got us to this point, you have to read The Source, by Martin Doyle. Required reading for any conservationist, Doyle explains how rivers made America, and then, how America remade its rivers. Beautifully written, this history lesson is a voyage downstream where every sentence flows easily into the next, and each section ends with a revelation that quickly pulls you into the next section. It was mesmerizing, especially as it pertains to river system here in Virginia. Here’s why.
Every region of the nation has used (sometimes misused) their rivers as an artery for travel, commerce, irrigation, and often, to pull pollution away. Many a metropolis was given birth by a powerful river, a distinct advantage. But, by trying to harness the power creating canals, dams, levees and reservoirs, we solved some problems, yet created others in the process. Before we tackle how America remade its rivers, let’s learn how rivers made America.

In Virginia, the river system has always been integral to our lives. Doyle describes how harnessing the Potomac actually played a role in writing the Constitution. In the 1780s, the rivers in Virginia were really the best way to transport goods from the “western” regions to market. To use the Potomac, however, you would have to get around Great Falls and its deep chasms. Unfortunately, there was no canal to facilitate that at the time. The question was, who would pay to build a canal? The federal government? A state government? A private enterprise? George Washington owned a company, The Potomac Company, that wanted a piece of the transportation business, yet the Articles of Confederation were insufficient to define who was financially responsible. So, our founding fathers met in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation by writing the Constitution, a document that would answer that question … and many, many more.
Once America learned how to use its rivers, we learned how to control their enormous power. Doyle explains how the Army Corps of Engineers helped control Mississippi flooding with an intricate system of levees and reservoirs. From flooding to drought, Doyle explains how the Hoover Dam was built to harness the flow of the mighty Colorado River for irrigation of the parched southwest. He goes on to explain how the Tennessee Valley Authority built a system of dams that brought inexpensive power to those who had lived in darkness for generations.

We have controlled floods. We have irrigated fields. We have produced power. But not without mistakes. We have also used rivers to get rid of human waste and chemical pollution. Remember the Cuyahoga River in Ohio that actually caught fire in 1969? While swimming is now permitted in the Cuyahoga, I’ll let Doyle describe how we have regained control of “point source” pollution that dumps waste directly into our rivers. Instead, let’s focus on today’s issue, non-point source pollution that is unobserved, but slowly creating a large dead spot in the Chesapeake Bay.

Science has determined that as much as 80% of the problem is created by agricultural runoff. Farmers using fertilizers may enjoy increased production of crops, but when it rains, the runoff leaches the nutrients from tilled fields into the rivers, where it is carried to the Bay. There, it does the same thing in the water that it does in the fields promoting organic growth. But in the Bay, that’s not corn, soybean or hay … it’s algae. The algae flourishes, dies, and bacteria proliferates depleting the water of oxygen where no marine life can survive. That is the dead spot.

The solution? It’s a complex question, but in 2005, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) devised a program of rewards for landowners who plant banks of trees (new forest) to filter the runoff before it reaches the river system. This is how a landowner (maybe you?) can find reward by simply growing trees. The state studies the sensitivity of each region to the river system. It values each region with an award of credits that can be sold to real estate developers if you plant to the DEQ standard and protect the new forest in perpetuity. Developers buy the credits to permit their projects in more urban areas. Landowners who already use a conservation easement to protect their land love this program because they are already in compliance with the commitment to protect the land. This program utilizes the natural assets the land will always retain and offers a landowner reward for doing the right thing for the ecology.
While The Source doesn’t mention the Virginia program, it might be in Doyle’s next book. As the Virginia model gains popularity, other surrounding states may replicate the program to amplify the benefit for us all. We may just fix this problem. If everyone does their part, we’re well on our way. One thing is certain. The Virginia program is doing its part to clean the Bay, and it finds reward for responsible landowners by involving private industry to help pay for the fix. Read Doyle’s book. You may be the next in line for a nutrient bank on your property.

Robert Banner is the Special Project Officer at ACRE Investment Management in The Plains, VA, ACRE is a full-service natural capital asset platform for landowners to manage their ecological portfolio. Learn the potential of your property. Contact Banner at rob@acre-investment.com to understand how the DEQ program in Virginia can benefit you and the environment.