Another Tragedy of the Commons

New Jersey’s largest lake is now its largest environmental mess

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source: NY Times

In Algae Bloom Fouls N.J.’s Largest Lake, Indicating Broader Crisis, Anne Barnard reports on Lake Hopatcong’s cyanobacterial bloom:

The problem at Lake Hopatcong resembles — to a point — climate change in miniature: A nation cannot save itself from climate change by reducing carbon emissions if other countries do not.

Pollution streams into the lake from diffuse sources. So if a few lakeside homeowners or a single town spend money and time taking measures, they could still face lake closures unless everyone in the watershed does the same.

Another tragedy of the commons, partly due to those involved refusing to share the commons equitably and sustainably.

At the core, the problem — at least in part — is due to the fact that the jurisdiction over the lake is divided over various municipalities, counties, and the state. Because our political boundaries have not been based on natural features like watersheds — and in fact often sets political boundaries in the middle of lakes and rivers instead of enclosing entire watersheds into more geological arrangements — we are constantly falling into this trap.

They should look at Elinor Ostrom’s eight principles for governing the commons, which I have annotated to reflect the local situation:

  1. Define clear group boundaries: those living in communities immediately adjacent to the lake are one group, those that are summer visitors another, and those further away in the watershed whose runoff flows into the lake are another. The state government may act as a representative of others affected who do not live in the watershed.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions: The ‘goods’ here is the lake, and the ‘use’ includes the lake serving as a sewer because the communities in the watershed have not made necessary investments to protect the lake. The rules should be geared to the sustainable use of the common goods.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules: Form a governing group — The Lake Hopatcong Commons Association — that involves those affected by rules, and have all participate in a proportional way.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities: this, in particular, means not allowing the State of New Jersy to ‘solve’ the problem by fiat.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior: again, the Commons Association should be self-monitoring.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators: The Association should be self-policing.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution: Again, managed by the Association, and based on the established rules.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system: This might better be the first point, since it shapes everything else.

The various governmental groups implicated in this mess are likely to continue to ignore the long history of successful grassroots sharing of commons like Lake Hopatcong and its watershed in other times and places. They won’t apply Ostrom’s principles, although that is the only answer to this and similar problems.

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