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Can Common Pool Resource Theory Catalyze Stakeholder-Driven Solutions to the Freshwater Salinization Syndrome?

Publication Type
Journal Name
Environmental Science & Technology
Publication Date
Page Numbers
1 to 11

Freshwater salinity is rising across many regions of the United States as well as globally, a phenomenon called the freshwater salinization syndrome (FSS). The FSS mobilizes organic carbon, nutrients, heavy metals, and other contaminants sequestered in soils and freshwater sediments, alters the structures and functions of soils, streams, and riparian ecosystems, threatens drinking water supplies, and undermines progress toward many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There is an urgent need to leverage the current understanding of salinization’s causes and consequences─in partnership with engineers, social scientists, policymakers, and other stakeholders─into locally tailored approaches for balancing our nation’s salt budget. In this feature, we propose that the FSS can be understood as a common pool resource problem and explore Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework as an approach for identifying the conditions under which local actors may work collectively to manage the FSS in the absence of top-down regulatory controls. We adopt as a case study rising sodium concentrations in the Occoquan Reservoir, a critical water supply for up to one million residents in Northern Virginia (USA), to illustrate emerging impacts, underlying causes, possible solutions, and critical research needs.