On the November ballot in Orange County is an Amendment that would grant the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers a “Bill of Rights.” By protecting these rivers and all of the life that they support, not only do the rivers win, but so do people. Perhaps it might dilute the intentions of the Rights of Nature supporters for me to say this, and to my dear friends in that movement, I apologize, but protecting nature also ensures that it continues to provide the essential services and products that support human well-being. That is not “nature’s purpose,” but it is certainly an outcome of healthy ecosystems. Here in Volusia County, we need to start a conversation about both the inherent rights of our rivers, wetlands, grasslands, and forests, and about how we can assign real monetary value to the services they provide for us when we preserve them.
Hurricane Laura made landfall early Thursday morning in southwest Louisiana and east Texas as a Category 4 hurricane. Between the 150 mph winds, 15-foot storm surge that pushed many miles inland, widespread tornadoes, and fires and spills associated with the dozens of oil refineries and natural gas and oil storage facilities in that coastal plain area, this storm was truly catastrophic, and the assessed damage will be massive. We know from studies done after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Harvey, Michael, and so many other incredibly devastating storms, that the impacts of those storm surges were so much greater because of the chronic losses of the coastal wetlands—the oyster beds, marshes, and swamps—that used to buffer the coastline. We can place monetary value on those coastal ecosystems by assessing the costs of the damage done by the storm in areas where the natural shorelines have been protected vs. areas where it has been converted to other land uses or prevented from rebuilding sediments because rivers were channelized. Similarly, after Hurricane Sandy, studies showed that communities in New Jersey that had protected their coastal dunes ecosystems sustained significantly less damage than those that had developed all the way down to the beach. We could conduct similar studies in Volusia County to assess the impacts of the recent Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.
Likewise, we can talk about the monetary value of clean water. In Volusia County, we depend on a “sole source aquifer” for our drinking water. This means that the majority of our drinking water comes from the Floridan Aquifer, and that we do not have many other sources of water that could be easily or affordably treated to potable levels. How much does it cost us right now to treat our mostly clean ground water? Well, that depends on whether you live on the west side of the county where the aquifer is deep and clean or if you live on the east side of the county where the aquifer is more difficult to access due to saltwater intrusion. The east side cities are now having to spend millions of dollars more to treat their municipal water supply to potable levels. How do we assess the value of clean water? We value it either by what it costs to procure, treat, and distribute it (the technical assessment) or we value it by what we are willing to pay for it (the public appraisal assessment). If we had to pay $1 per liter for the water that comes out of our taps (like we do for water that comes in plastic bottles), would we conserve our tap water more? This is how we calculate the value of ecosystem products and services.
We can also talk about the value of our public lands in the center of Volusia County, which we manage for the multiple uses of timber harvesting, wildlife protection, aquifer recharge, hunting and fishing, and other outdoor recreation. What is the value of the timber that is harvested? Of the fishing and hunting permits? Of the profits, sales taxes, and employee salaries of outdoor gear stores that outfit those enjoying outdoor recreation? What is the value of the water that purifies and recharges our aquifer in those areas? How much would it cost to replace those benefits with technology or by restoring land someplace else?
Likewise, our upland forests are prime real estate for development. While they include wetlands that filter water and recharge the surficial and deep Floridan Aquifer and feed the wetlands, springs, and lakes further downhill, they are mostly dry, and thus “easy” to convert to urban and suburban uses. Volusia’s cities’ and county ‘s elected officials and staff are attracted to the revenue they can generate from impact fees, property taxes, and more residents spending money in the area. And yet, we lose the real, monetary value that these sites provided for all of us in water purification, aquifer recharge, carbon storage, and biodiversity protection. We also lose the agriculturally essential pollinator habitat, on-site recreation opportunities, and the aesthetic value of the entire landscape of Volusia County that attracts residents and tourists alike, including motorcyclists, bicyclists, hikers, kayakers and canoers, fishers and hunters, and beachgoers. And let’s add in all of our tourism dollars to the value of these ecosystems, too! Can we afford to lose our uplands or any other ecosystem? Can we afford to downgrade (a.k.a., “develop,” or “improve”) them for a short-term cash out from impact fees and property taxes. The Soil and Water Conservation District can begin a program of assessing the value of the multiple components of ecosystem services and products of landscapes and bodies of water across the county. Such a database would be an invaluable resource to the Planning and Zoning Boards and City and County Commissioners when they are presented with development proposals, which they need to compare to the real, tangible value of preserving the existing ecosystems. While nature has an inherent right to exist, it is easiest to explain to most people that it is also economically valuable to US in its “natural” state.