Puget Sound_Marilynn76_Flickr.Here’s a case for saving Puget Sound that you can take to the bank.

The Sound and the land, rivers, and lakes surrounding it provide benefits worth $9.7 billion and $83 billion every year, according to a new study called “Valuing the Puget Sound Basin” from Earth Economics, a local nonprofit. The overall worth of the region is pegged at $305 billion and $2.6 trillion. How does this hardworking watershed do it?

In the West, snow melt provides approximately 70 percent of the drinking water, which if habitat was destroyed and snow fall diminished, would have to be replaced with the construction of costly reservoirs. Or take the region’s Pacific yew trees, a source of the cancer-treating drug Taxol.

“In the past we’ve treated our natural assets as though the value is zero,” said Maya Kocian, one of the authors of the report.

And when natural systems are not accounted for, there’s little incentive not to bulldoze trees or erect damaging rock walls on shorelines.

This sort of analysis shows that nature is “providing a vast basket of services to our economy,” Kocian added.

Other natural functions that Earth Economics included in the price: flood control, absorption of greenhouse gases, natural pollution filtration and treatment, and recreation and tourism. And the list goes on (see the chart on page 32).

This practice of tabulating a value for these resources is more than an interesting academic exercise or party trick. It provides valuable information that should inform decisions concerning public policy and all manner of investments. Here’s why.

  • Let’s take the example of Seattle Public Utilities. Every 30 years, SPU does an economic analysis of its assets. Here’s the shortcoming of the process, as explained in the report:

    The problem is that the watershed does not count as an economic asset in the utility’s financial books. Facilities, pipes, vehicles, buildings, roads, computers, copy machines, fences, and pencils all count as assets. If SPU had to install a $250 million filtration plant, it would count as an asset on their books. The value of the forest accomplishing the same task does not. This is not SPU’s choice, nor is it their fault. They must adhere to standards set by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) . . . .

    Again to SPU’s credit, they recently pulled together six other West Coast public utilities to discuss this issue. They are likely the first in the world to take this forward‐thinking step. Staff from all six utilities agreed that this is an accounting issue that needs correction.

    The battle between the efficiency and effectiveness of built infrastructure versus Mother Nature also comes up again and again in dealing with stormwater. Research shows that it’s cheaper to deal with runoff by helping rain absorb where it falls, than it is to channel it into a built stormwater system of gutters, pipes, storm drains and combined-sewage overflows. That non-infrastructure strategy—also called low-impact development—relies heavily on using trees, plants, and undisturbed soils to sponge up the rainwater.

    Governments are finally starting to appreciate this and put a price on vegetation by discounting stormwater bills if the plants are maintained. Portland, for example, is giving stormwater mitigation credit for trees (see chapter 2 of their stormwater manual). And this study by ECONorthwest compared the cost of doing low-impact development to traditional stormwater infrastructure. They urged analysts to take a broader look at the costs and benefits of projects, including some of the environmental values addressed by Earth Economics. 

    There’s hope that natural assets will be more frequently added to the bottom line as the approach becomes more widely understood. Kocian, one of the study’s authors, said people aren’t yet making “the connection between natural systems and our economy.”

    But already, she said, her group got a call from the Washington State Department of Ecology. They were asking about including environmental services when doing SEPA analysis that try to tally the environmental impacts of a proposed project. It’s about time.

    Ready to take the leap photo courtesy of Flickr user Marilynn76 under a Creative Commons license.