Water Economics

Science Center Objects

Water is associated with numerous ecosystem services, including clean water for drinking, support for outdoor recreation, provision for other ecosystem processes, and direct cultural values. 

SEA economists investigate these aspects of the value of water quality and water quantity through multiple projects, including many under the umbrella of the Sustaining Environmental Capital Initiative (SECI)

  • A central theme across this research portfolio is the value associated with water depends on the specific context and uses in question. SEA economists develop this theme in more detail in materials developed as contributions to a broader effort by the interagency Wilderness Economics Working Group, which aims to assess the current status of, and trends in, the economic values and ecosystem service benefits provided by wilderness lands across the United States.

  • Consistent with this theme, SEA economists are conducting multiple stated preference  studies to elicit the benefits of freshwater supply. A contingent valuation survey in the Susquehanna River basin will improve understanding of the values related to nutrient cycling and sediment retention supported freshwater mussels. Another SEA economics study relies on a choice experiment survey in northern New Mexico to explore the benefits of source water protection as an attribute of forest restoration treatments to lower high-intensity fire risk.

  • Another nonmarket valuation approach infers values from observed transactions, such as from the sales prices of residential property. SEA economists are using such methods in collaborating with the USGS National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Project to understand links between measures of water quality in freshwater streams and nonmarket benefits of those measures.

  • SEA is assisting the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program with an ongoing assessment of tribal values, perspectives, and knowledge of Colorado River ecosystem resources. The vision is to administer a series of nonmarket valuation surveys to tribal populations. This research will inform on tribal perspectives and preferences for trade-offs (e.g., between energy generation and other downstream resources) related to operation of Glen Canyon Dam.

  • SEA economists also develop the Benefit Transfer Toolkit as a resource for finding, understanding, and synthesizing previously-published estimates of the benefits of many natural resources. The Toolkit includes summary databases on salmon preservation and improved surface water quality, as well as water-based outdoor recreation uses, including boating, fishing, swimming, and SCUBA diving.