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Colorado River Basin’s “Natural Capital” Delivers up to Half a Trillion in Annual Benefits, New Study Says

The Animas River flows through the heart of Durango, Colorado. Photo: Sandra Postel
The Animas River flows through the heart of Durango, Colorado. Photo: Sandra Postel

Last week I spent time around the Animas, La Plata, and San Juan Rivers in southwestern Colorado – generally the area between Pagosa Springs and Mesa Verde National Park, where the elaborate cliff-dwelling ruins of the Anasazi remind us that what we call home may not last forever.

On one bright blue day pushing 90 degrees, I headed down to the Animas River, the largest tributary of the San Juan, and a beautiful headwater stream in the Colorado Basin that runs right through the vibrant town of Durango.

Tubers and rafters floated through the gentle rapids. In quieter stretches upstream, kids cooled off with an afternoon swim.  A riverside trail was bustling with bikers and strollers of all ages.

Just steps from the trail, you could scoop up some home-made ice cream, sip tea in a used-book store, or just hang in the shade of a towering tree in the riverside park.  Toward evening, anglers appeared with their fishing poles to try their luck in the river again.

On a hike up Animas Mountain, I took in a birds-eye view of the whole Animas Valley, looking north to the San Juan Mountains and south toward Fort Lewis College, which sits on a hill above the town and its roughly 17, 200 residents.  Rich green fields of hay and vegetables lined the river as it meandered slowly toward town.  Hikers, runners, and dog-walkers headed up and down the mountain trail, a favorite with locals for its proximity to town and its spectacular river-valley views.

It didn’t take long to grasp an important truth: that without the river running through it, Durango and its surroundings would in no way be the energetic rural town and tourist draw that it is.

A tuber floats down the Animas River in Durango, Colorado. Photo: Sandra Postel
A tuber floats down the Animas River in Durango, Colorado. Photo: Sandra Postel

It’s hard to quantify the benefits of all the beauty, fun, relaxation and recreation that healthy rivers and lakes offer to us. But a new report on the economic value of the Colorado River Basin’s diverse freshwater ecosystems – which include the Animas and San Juan Rivers, as well as the Yampa, Verde and many more throughout the 249,000-square mile (645,000-square kilometer) watershed – attempts to do just that.

The figures are eye-catching. River-based recreation and tourism in the Animas and San Juan watersheds alone add $40 million a year to the local economies of the Colorado Basin.  For the basin as a whole, that figure is $1.65 billion per year.

The report, by Tacoma, Washington-based Earth Economics and titled Nature’s Value in the Colorado River Basin, attempts to evaluate the economic benefits of the basin’s “natural capital assets,” which comprise the natural lands and waters within the Colorado watershed, and the flow of benefits, or “ecosystem services,” derived from them.

As I wrote in a recent post about the value of wetlands, the economic benefits of healthy ecosystems are grossly underappreciated because most are not priced in the marketplace.  Lacking a defensible, dollar-denominated value, the natural services ecosystem provide typically can’t compete with “development” projects – whether new subdivisions on the land or diversions of river water – for which estimated benefits are expressed in clear dollar terms.

As a result of this skewed cost-benefit set-up, we are losing nature’s services at a rapid rate, both in the Colorado Basin and around the world.

The Earth Economics team estimates that the flow of benefits derived from the Colorado Basin’s natural lands and waters ranges from $69 billion to $496 billion per year – not a small chunk of change and likely an underestimate because of the many benefits impossible to quantify.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the provision of water supplies tops the list of the 12 ecosystem services the team analyzed, with an estimated value of $16.6 billion to $42 billion per year.

Of course, the tough part for the Colorado Basin’s communities and stakeholders comes in making specific tradeoffs at the margin.  Is a particular river’s flow more valuable left alone for recreation and fisheries, or tapped to supply water to farms and cities?   And at what point, or level of flow, does the answer flip?  How do we factor in irreversible consequences, like the extinction of a fish species?

It’s a balancing act, not only of economics, but also of cultural values and ethics.

But this new analysis can help ensure that nature’s services are factored into land and water-use decisions, instead of implicitly valued at zero, a practice that has cost us dearly.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.