Accounting for the value of environmental water

This week’s blog builds upon Quinn McColly’s previous piece, “Diamonds for water.”

David Yoskowitz and Quinn McColly visited Australian colleagues to exchange ideas about the value of environmental water.

As an economist, I have found that the study of water is one of those things that no matter what you do or where you go, you tend to come back to it. Why? Unlike studying micro-enterprise in Central America or currency substitution in the border region of the United States, water is an issue everywhere. There is either too much of it, not enough of it, the quality could be better, or the use of it more efficient.

This is how I found myself working on water issues once again after a slight detour for a few years. Thanks to Marilu Hastings, a great opportunity arose to estimate the value of freshwater inflows into two bays in Texas on a project originally started by her husband Mitch Mathis. When Mitch got sick and passed away it was important to Marilu that the work he started was completed. I was fortunate to meet with Marilu; we hit it off immediately, and I helped carry out Mitch’s work. This effort continues with the establishment of the Mitchell L. Mathis Program for Environmental Water Economics (Mathis Program). As mentioned in the Diamonds for water blog, the work of this multi-partner program encapsulates the idea that people must consider the management and use of water holistically, including water for the environment.

The concept of “environmental water” refers to managed water resources that are left in-stream for use in natural ecological processes. We know that water is a cornerstone of life and is fundamentally important to humans and nature, but water is a finite resource. When it is extracted or impounded upstream, the amount of water flowing to estuaries is affected. Some of the most important processes occur where upland rivers and streams meet the ocean in bays and estuaries. In fact, there is no such thing as an estuary without freshwater. Estuaries are some of the most productive places on earth, serving as nurseries and habitat for wildlife, and supporting many socio-economic activities.

Fresh water flows through Cow Creek, Texas in Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Chris Hale.)

We need to find novel ways – based in economics and other disciplines – to ensure that water for environmental use is considered alongside all the other competing demands for water. For Texas, one of the strategies revolves around the idea of “focused flows”, a concept introduced by Paul Montagna (check out his freshwater inflow tool). The idea is that in times of drought, downstream environments are susceptible to greater stress resulting from diminished environmental flows. While it may not be feasible to supplement diminished natural flow with enough water to affect an entire bay, it may be possible to provide enough water (focused flows) to improve environmental conditions in a smaller area near the head of a bay. This area often becomes a refuge for flora and fauna during dry conditions. When the rains return and water starts flowing again, the estuary can rebound faster than without the focused flows. Some of the work of the Mathis Program will be to design and help implement socio-economic tools to secure environmental water for when it is needed vs. when it is not.

Water is a vital resource, and it is well understood that we can face regional scarcity and abundance at the same time. The challenge is to meet the needs of a growing economy and increased reliance on the natural environment while managing the one thing that we cannot do without. As land use patterns change and demographic patterns shift, we need to think in terms of finding solutions that are adaptable, equitable, and take a holistic view.

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