January 13, 2010

Watershed benefits estimated at $371 million

As published in The Erin Advocate

Most people know about financial "capital", the investments that drive our economy, as well as the term "natural resources", which includes timber and minerals that can be sold for a profit. Not in common use though is the concept of "natural capital", the value of services we get from our ecology.

"One of the key aspects of valuing ecological services is the idea that Mother Nature does for free what we would otherwise have to pay millions to do through technology and infrastructure," said Jeff Wilson, Ecological Goods and Services Project Coordinator at Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).

He co-authored a recent report by the Pembina Institute and CVC, which found that the Credit River Watershed provides annual services worth more than $371 million to area residents.

The study attaches dollar amounts to various benefits we draw from nature. For example, if our groundwater supply became compromised, it would cost about $100 million per year to pump the required water up from Lake Ontario – just to maintain current water use.

"Because the value of natural capital doesn't show up on anyone's balance sheet, we end up using ecological resources in very inefficient ways," said Mike Kennedy, Senior Resource Economist with the Pembina Institute, a national non-profit think tank that promotes sustainable energy solutions. "We know we are living beyond the limits of nature to sustain our population."

You can download the report at www.creditvalleycons.ca or the Pembina site, www.greeneconomics.ca, but it is mainly a message to the provincial and municipal governments (which fund the conservation authorities).

Politicians should indeed heed the trend by looking at the big, big picture when deciding if and how land should be developed. We need to do a lot more with the land that has already been converted to urban landscape, as well as reforesting and naturalizing degraded lands.

If we had inherited a treasure, and in fact lived on top of it, how would we react if someone wanted to buy pieces of it at less than its true worth? We might simply say it is not for sale, or at least demand full price for the asset. But if we did not realize the value of what lay beneath our feet, or considered it an endless supply of wealth, chances are we would sell it off at a much lower price.

The study is called Natural Credit: Estimating the Value of Natural Capital in the Credit River Watershed. The authors play upon the word "Crédit", the name given to the river by French fur traders who supplied goods to the native Mississaugas in advance (on credit), for furs to be provided the following spring.

The dollar amounts in the study are only rough estimates. The authors admit to "inherent weaknesses" in their methods, but say their estimates are "conservative". They are adamant about the validity of considering the economic consequences before natural features are lost.

"We act as though the bank of nature has unlimited assets, and we keep making withdrawals as if there is no tomorrow," the report says. "By accounting for natural capital we can start to align our economic ambitions with our ethical environmental responsibility – to provide future generations with at least the same benefits from nature that we enjoy."

Here are some examples of the natural capital values (per year):

• $186.8 million provided by wetlands, in the form of climate and water regulation, water supply, soil formation, nutrient cycling and waste treatment.

• $140.6 million provided by various types of forest, including atmospheric, climate and water regulation, recreation, wildlife habitat, pollination and waste treatment.

• $14.5 million provided by waterways, including recreation and benefits similar to wetlands.

• $29.2 million provided by meadows and farmlands, with benefits similar to forests.

The watershed includes all the land drained by the Credit and its tributaries, including the headwaters in Erin and Orangeville, plus parts of Caledon, Brampton, Halton Hills, Milton, Oakville and Mississauga. The watershed covers 1,000 square kilometers and is home to about 800,000 people.