Healthy Water Is Worth Big Bucks

Opinion / Sep. 7, 2017 9:06am EDT

By Rep. David Deen

We place a genuine personal value on clean water but that has not easily computed to a dollar value, and that is unfortunate because in the wider world, economic values drive decisions about our waters—more so than do personal values. In our recent history, our operating theory about our waste was “the solution to pollution is dilution” meaning piping human wastes directly into our rivers made good economic sense.

Our uses of rivers in that historic framework never considered the cost of the ecological values lost nor the loss of our sense of place. Historically, if it made money it was good regardless of its impacts on ecosystems. So, people would place a dollar value on cheap waste disposal, maximum hydropower and easy transport but no one calculated the loss that occurred when our rivers ran in assorted colors, smelled, threatened aquatic life, or the water itself was unsafe for human contact.

What is the intrinsic value of clean water? Well, something to consider comes from the Outdoor Industries Inc., a national industry association. Their figures show that 70% of Vermonters and 69% of New Hampshirites participate in outdoor activities. With participation rates at those levels you can understand how a healthy outdoors is how we identify our sense of place. The outdoors is what we do.

Recent economic studies of both the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain now shine light on the dollar value of clean water. In the Lake Champlain basin, the Lake Champlain Basin Program commissioned the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics at UVM to look at the value of a clean Lake Champlain.

According to the Gund study, “Proximity to the Lake contributes significantly to property valuation. Single family and seasonal residences within 100 meters of Lake Champlain are expected to sell for nearly 30% to 49% more than similar residences that are located outside this area.”

But they found that homes prices were especially sensitive to loss of water quality. When increasing phosphorous levels lead to increased algae blooms and decreased water clarity, home prices in their estimate lost $7,000 in average. On the flip side, reduced loading of phosphorous, due to implementing the EPA approved clean-up plan, would result in a $15,200 average price increase for single family dwellings.

Cleaner water affects recreation income, too, because when water clarity increased, they estimated a $2,303 income increase per average lodging unit per meter of increase in clarity.

As to the Connecticut River, a new analysis from Nelsen Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth finds that the valuation of the aquatic recreational activities in the river generate revenue for both states.

In terms of real estate values, the study holds that the increase in value for proximity to the river is worth over $3.2 billion. The added personal income for proximity to the river is $2.4 billion per year and the recreational resource including fishing for the river is 166 million dollars per year.

Things have come a long way from the dilution is-the-solution days but not that far. We have made significant investments to reduce direct discharges into our rivers, but we have given short shrift to overland stormwater runoff. We are just beginning to invest in reducing this insidious form of pollution.

For decades economists have tried to place a dollar value on healthy ecosystems. The examples given above show the clear economic advantage of clean water. The Connecticut River, Lake Champlain, and all our watersheds need policy makers to think critically about protecting clean healthy ecosystems, not only in environmental terms but in economic terms as well.

Rep. David L. Deen of Westminster is chair of the Fish and Wildlife Committee in the Vermont House.

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