05/05/2012 06:33 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2012

Banking on the Bay

It used to be that unscrupulous salesmen would try to sell you the bridge; nowadays, they've climbed a rung lower -- they're trying to sell you the public trust water flowing under the bridge. A recent website,, has planted a giant "For Sale" sign on the Chesapeake Bay and the stage is now set to create a marketplace out of this sacred common resource, with the bay being sold off credit-by-credit.

So what exactly do you get when you buy a credit on Bay Bank's website? You don't actually get a cup of bay water. The water bottling companies have already figured out how to commoditize our water resources by pouring it into containers and selling it in the supermarkets. Bay Bank actually promotes a much more insidious way to market our waterways -- they're facilitating the sale of the right to pollute the bay with more of the same contaminants that are already threatening the very future of this important watershed.

Here is how water pollution trading -- also known as water quality trading -- is supposed to work: Instead of recognizing that waterways are owned by everyone as a public trust and enforcing the prohibition on polluting our water, these market-based approaches allow some polluters to claim they've decreased their pollution and then sell that alleged decrease, in the form of pollution credits, to other polluters who want to increase their pollution.

Bay trading proponents claim that this pollution peddling scheme creates a financial incentive to get the agricultural industry, the biggest polluter in the Bay region and the anticipated generator of most of the credits, to finally clean up its act. The real dark side of this water pollution trading business, however, is that they're selling a right that doesn't even exist; under the Clean Water Act, any water pollution is illegal. Water pollution trading turns a crime into a commodity.

Sadly, there aren't even any indications that water pollution trading will have any beneficial impact on Bay water quality. Water pollution trading has never worked anywhere else. These water privateers also ignore the fact that the Bay industry has already been handed a bunch of voluntary financial incentives over the past 30 years to stop polluting, and none of them have worked.

The reality seems that trading has nothing to do with cleaning up the Bay and everything to do with further deregulating industry and handing our common resources over to companies for profit. It is part of a push to financialize nature by giving each aspect of nature a monetary price, a value, thus locking natural resources management into the vagaries of the market for generations to come.

And then there's the money...

Water pollution trading has the potential to make some people rich. Aggregators' only role is to gather up credits from farms that may or may not have reduced their pollution and pass those credits onto power plants and other industries who want to dump a little -- or a lot -- more pollution into our communities. These middlemen are there to skim some profits off the surface of the Bay while peddling poisons around the state.

There's also a lot of federal tax dollars being dumped into the trading scheme, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture sowing many millions of dollars in trading seeds around the country in various water pollution pilot programs. In the Bay, the USDA just recently announced it is spending $10 million to promote water pollution trading and even some big environmental NGOs are lining up for payday.

Water pollution trading is creeping into the non-regulatory landscape across the country and in the Bay watershed. That's good news for those who are looking to game the system and profit off the losses of others, but bad news for anyone who cares about water quality, the sanctity of our public trust resources and the ongoing suffering of disadvantaged communities.

This was originally posted at Food & Water Watch's blog.