We place a genuine and personal value on clean water but that does not compute easily to a dollar value. Yet in the wider world, economic values drive decisions about our waters more so than do personal feelings. In our recent history, our operating theory about waste was “the solution to pollution is dilution” and that meant piping waste directly into our rivers made good economic sense. The economic value placed on rivers in that historic framework never considered the cost of the ecological values lost. So people could place a dollar value on cheap waste disposal, hydropower, and transport but there was no calculation of the loss that occurred when our rivers smelled or were unsafe for human contact.
We as a country have made significant investments to reduce direct pipe discharges into our rivers but we have given short shrift to stormwater runoff. We have not invested in reducing this more disperse and insidious form of pollution and when we do address stormwater, instead of addressing the problem as a shared societal responsibility fueled by our tax dollars as we did with direct pipe pollution, we tend to make cleaning up stormwater an individual responsibility. This change from our approach to addressing direct discharges has meant that the cleanup of stormwater-impaired waters is taking too long for some of us.
We built our roads, farms, and businesses near water. Most of them were built in the dilution-is-the-solution days so the stormwater from these facilities was just expected to go into our rivers and that was that. We learned over time that approach impairs our waterways. It is time to change our outlook about the true cost of stormwater cleanup and as we address stormwater pollution adopt the shared responsibility approach we used to clean up direct discharges.
The Environmental Protection Agency offers some comparisons about the cost of cleaning up versus avoiding pollution that make a clear economic case for a healthy environment. If New York City found it necessary to construct a new drinking water facility to treat impaired water the cost estimate is $8 billion to $10 billion. If NYC did watershed conservation on the same bodies of water and allowed the land to clean the sources of water, it would cost $1.5 billion to protect their drinking water: a savings factor of five.
If we treat wastewater in a conventional wastewater treatment plant the cost of removal of the pathogens and nutrients from our waste stream is $3.24 per 1,000 gallons. If a wetland were to treat the same wastewater the cost would be as low as 47 cents per 1,000 gallons: a savings factor of nearly seven.
In many of the choices we make as a society, it is not so much a question of whether we should “build” a natural system by replanting a riparian buffer or creating a constructed wetland. The question most often comes down to do we leave the natural system that already exists in place or remove it in the name of progress. Not only does leaving these natural systems in place reinforce our sense of place by retaining the natural landscape but also they offer ecosystem services that protect our waters cheaper than our engineered solutions. Clearly a win/win result.
We can look at the current use programs in Vermont and New Hampshire as one test of the willingness of people to pay for ecosystem services. Land that remains in farming and/or active forestry can receive a property tax reduction for keeping the land undeveloped, open, and working, in many instances increasing the protections for the environment.
The rest of society picks up the cost of those protection services and by doing so has shown that we are willing to pay for ecosystem services.
The Connecticut River and all of our watersheds need stewards who think critically about ecosystem services not only in environmental terms but in economic terms as well.
David L. Deen
River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council.