Rivers are valuable. Yet, determining the value of a river is a complex task. To understand the
value of restoring the Mahoning River, it is important to understand some basic economic principles. Additionally, it is important to add some less direct economic benefits called “quality of life” principles to the discussion. Just how important to our quality of life and economic vitality is the restoration of our river? You be the judge.
(To learn about the Mahoning River cleanup project, please see River Restoration and
Costs of River
What is the Value of a River? (Dr. Lauren Schroeder (professor emeritus, YSU Biology, has studied the Mahoning River for 35 years) shares thoughts about the Mahoning River’s impact on quality of life and the environment. Includes a “Quality of Life” equation to provide a value assessment of the environment.)
What is the Value of a River?
Everyone agrees that rivers have immense value. They are the places where most major cities develop; they provide irrigation water, industrial water, and domestic water; they provide recreation and transportation for goods; they may carry away waste and have dozens of other uses that nearly everyone agrees are valuable. Although many of these values are common to many rivers, the focus and the primary interest of most of us is the question: What is the Value of the Mahoning River? Another way of asking this is: How does the Mahoning River impact the quality of life and environment?
During the past 20 years, large sums of money have been expended to reduce the pollution loading of the Mahoning River. Was that money well spent? As we contemplate spending more money to improve the quality of the Mahoning River, will that money be well spent?
Business decisions are almost always made on the basis of a
Analysis. Increasingly, environmental management decisions also must be made on the basis of a Cost-Benefit Analysis. The problem is that BENEFITS are usually thought of only in direct economic terms. That is, what is the dollar value of the benefits. For example, in the case of the Mahoning River, if X dollars are expended to improve the water quality so that the river could be used for canoeing, fishing and other recreational purposes, then the benefits would be described as the
value in dollars to the economy of the Mahoning Valley of these activities. These are indeed benefits and are, of course, part of the benefits portion of the equation. However, there are other “benefits” that usually, if not always, are ignored when analyzing the benefits of a river restoration. It is these non-economic, often ignored, values that may be the most important considerations in the Cost-Benefit calculations. One of the reasons for ignoring many benefits is the difficulty in expressing them in monetary terms.
For example: According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the restoration of the Mahoning River will cost about $100,000,000, 35% ($35,000,000) of which will be paid by the river communities, local counties and/or the State of Ohio. Once the river is restored, the Mahoning Valley will recover $30,000,000 per year in just recreation activity alone. That would be considered an excellent return on an investment if viewed from just an economic equation. But, the benefits beyond that are incalculable: The fact that all future generations will benefit from a fully restored river (in terms of quality of life and economic vitality); that there will be a greater sense of pride among the people living in the Mahoning River Watershed by having a restored, beautiful river; that residents and tourists will be able to visit the river and recreate on it. All of these have tremendous value that is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify with a dollar sign.
A “Quality of Life”
(QLI) definition was proposed by Wagner in 1968, two years after the first Mahoning River Pollution Conference. It is stated thusly:
QLI = (Goods and Services)/Population + Experiences/Time/Population
Goods and Services/Population is the average share of the gross domestic product (GDP) for each person in the society. The GDP is relatively easy to measure—it is the market place value of goods and services. But the GDP has limitations as a measure of
QLI. For example, garbage pick-up and health costs are part of the GDP. Does it follow then that the dirtier we are, the more trash to pick up, the better off we are? Does it follow that the sicker we are, the more we spend on health care, the better off we are? Of course, this is not necessarily true. Also it implies that more is better—this too is not necessarily true.
The second part of Wagner’s equation is more difficult to measure but it has to do with: feelings of well-being, contentment, productivity, creativity, mental balance, social belonging, family and social cohesiveness, and a number of other “fuzzy” terms that are hard to measure. Yet this is the essence of Quality of Life. Goods and services have no value if they cannot be translated in psychological and social attributes. They have no value unless they function to provide pleasure, a sense of well-being and purpose. They have no value unless they translate into self worth.
The term Quality of Life implies a
value assessment of the environment. “Quality of Life” is an illusive term that has different meaning to different people. Nevertheless, it is the central issue in all societal decisions. An object has value if it can improve the Quality of Life of its owner or user. But things other than objects contribute to Quality of Life.
The question of whether the Mahoning River should be cleaned up is one that must be based on a Cost-Benefit analysis. Benefits include not only the simple direct economic value, but also include less tangible but none-the-less important contributors to Quality of Life. The difficulty comes in part in identifying the intangibles and in part in quantifying the intangibles. But, the benefits must be measured in terms of improvement in the quality of life—not simply direct economic benefits, although these are important as they relate to the enhancement of
The social and intrinsic values that are often ignored when making Cost-Benefit-based decisions. Clearly the project is worthwhile, but the “value” of the Mahoning River is not the pertinent question. Clearly rivers have immense value to humans. Nearly all ancient civilizations were developed in river valleys: Mesopotamia along the Tigris - Euphrates, Egypt along the Nile. Most major cities have developed along rivers: London, Paris, Rome, New York, New Orleans, St. Luis, and Cairo. Rivers have provided routes for transportation, water for agriculture, industry, and domestic use. Rivers have carried away the waste of cities and factories.
These uses of rivers obviously have value and this value is easily translated into economic terms. But rivers also have other values that, albeit, are not easily converted to economic terms, none-the-less are as or more important.
There clearly are significant social values to environments that have elements of nature in them. How these environments—carefully integrated into our cities and suburbs—would affect social cohesiveness, social conscience, self-esteem, and be manifested in reduced crime, increased performance in work productivity and effectiveness is not easy to determine. But just because it is difficult to translate into monetary terms does not mean that it is unimportant and should be ignored.
The Mahoning River, cleaned to a state that once again invites people to its banks and functions as an element of a more natural environment in the midst of the city, may pay dividends in social well-being that far exceeds the direct value of the river in any of its previous modes.
A Mahoning River that invites the citizens of the Mahoning Valley to speak with pride of the river as a symbol of beauty, and of how we care for our environment, how we value and care for our heritage may prove to be the most valuable asset that we have in the Mahoning Valley.
The Mahoning River once again can serve the best interests of the people of the Mahoning Valley, not by carrying away the waste of industry, but as a symbol of the rebirth of the Mahoning Valley, as a source of community pride and self-esteem. The river as a central element in an urban setting that contains elements of a more natural environment may well serve to reduce crime, increase social cohesiveness, decrease stress, and in total enhance the quality of life of the citizens of the Mahoning Valley far more than any other community activity.
WHAT VALUE ARE RIVERS? What Value is the Mahoning River? How should a river be used for the greatest good? Or, what is the Cost-Benefit ratio for cleaning the river? By value we usually mean: how can the river improve our Quality of Life? Value of the Mahoning River must be defined and measured in terms of the Quality of Life of the residents in the Mahoning Valley.