How much is a clean lake worth to you?

Kids jumping into the lake off the dock Brocreative/Shutterstock

Who could put a price on clean water, right? In fact, many studies have tried to to just this, and often, concluded that—financially speaking—water conservation is a losing investment. But these researchers mustn’t have perched at the end of a wooden dock, poised to plunge into the glassy waters below when, oh, ew, what the? It’s an algal bloom. When blue and green clouds clog up water making it undrinkable and unswimmable, it makes headlines.  NASA’s photos from a 2014 bloom that all but took over Lake Erie are fittingly eerie.

How do we put a value on clean water?

For any person who values their morning swim or paddle, or a fresh caught trout for dinner, the value of clean water seems obvious. New research suggests that where these studies have found the value harder to establish is in dollars: What is the return on investment for cleaning up and protecting our water? The study, published online on October 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences went over the array of U.S. studies claiming clean water returns were weak, and noted areas where not everything can be quantified in dollars and cents—a flaw that creates a major blind spot in this cost-benefit approach to conservation.

The cost of dirty water

Here in Canada, we’ve also seen water protection tossed aside for the cost of effort. Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer and president of clean water advocacy organization Swim. Drink. Fish. points to the country’s largest city as an example. For years, the option of posting signs to deter people from swimming in the Toronto Harbour have been chosen over the cost of cleaning up these waters—and modernizing its combined sewer system that dumps raw sewage into the lake in the event of major storms or flooding. What’s the monetary cost of not swimming in the Toronto harbour? Well, not much—in fact, it’s cheaper since they don’t have to maintain infrastructure to allow people to swim in these parts. But that’s the sort of number crunching that Mattson says, is now becoming less acceptable. “I get it that we’ve alienated ourselves from the water for a number of decades,” says Mattson. “We’ve built poor infrastructure, but I think we’ve reached a turning point and I think that’s clear.”

The benefits of clean water

To put it simply, he asks, if you won the lottery and could buy a property anywhere, would it be on a clean lake or a polluted lake? He points out the development of lakefront trails around the Great Lakes. In Michigan and Illinois, houses built within a kilometre of those waterfront trails are valued at 30 per cent higher than those farther away. RBC has done its own work on the issue, since 2008 producing the Canadian Water Attitudes Study. Last year, it found that water is seen as the most valuable natural resource we have in Canada (though that doesn’t always translate to conservation efforts.) A study out of the Ted Rogers School of Management looked at beach users around Lake Huron in 2009 and found that locals would spend between $9 and $12 during a day at the beach, while visitors spent between $42 and $56. That’s money to a local café, a boat rental outfit, or ice cream vendor. But it’s an economy that relies on clean, swimmable water.

There are numbers to support cleaning and maintaining our waters, but there are also those intangible benefits to swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water, as Mattson would say. “In Ontario, it’s sacrosanct. The cottage country of northern Ontario, when there’s the threat of blue-green algae, people freak out,” says Mattson. “The investment they make for their family and children to bring them there to experience it all has to do with clean water.”

Shorelines of the future

This summer, Swim.Drink.Fish. along with the City of Kingston, developed the Gord Edgar Downie Pier on the waterfront that once saw some of the most polluted water in Lake Ontario. It’s been cleaned up and is monitored in real-time to make sure it remains safe and it has become one of the most popular spots in the city, as well as the envy of other municipalities across Canada. “How do you value the idea that your community respects the water so much that Canadians old or new can go down and have that quintessential experience and feel like that water is for them. That’s invaluable. It’s those places that are going to succeed in the future,” he says. “Have someone do a cost benefit analysis of that and it’ll blow those old analyses of, ‘Oh, it’s too expensive, put up the sign not to fish, drink or swim’ right out of the water.”


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