A better economical understanding of the value of water is in progress at Iowa State University after an $800,000 award was given to researchers at The Center for Agricultural and Rural Development by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)
“The reason that the EPA is interested in this kind of analysis is that they are tasked by the government to do a Cost Benefit Analysis to come up with rules and regulations," said Cathy Kling, director of the Center of Agricultural and Rural Development (CARDS), and the leading investigator on the project.
"If we were going to improve the water quality from what it is now, it’s going to cost something," Kling said. "If you impose some costs on people, you have to have a good idea on how those costs will benefit the people."
The findings of the project will better define what people value their water quality at, giving federal government and state agencies a basis on which they can make decisions on how and where to spend public dollars concerning water-related issues.
The project’s first step is to begin with small focus groups that will be presented with pictures of rivers and streams with differing levels of water quality. The researchers at CARD will discuss with the focus groups what ecological indicators are important to them, and will then determine what varying levels of water quality look like to them.
“Do they care what the water looks like? What community of animals live there?" Kling said. "When they see pictures of what looks like a healthy characteristic to an ecologist, we want to know how they would perceive that characteristic of that water system."
Surveys will also be developed where different levels of water quality will be depicted to groups, and their responses to these pictures will provide more basis in defining how they value water.
Following the focus groups and surveys, the team also plans on preparing a scale on which water quality can be measured. Higher levels on the scale will indicate a more natural, pristine ecological system of water quality, and lower levels will relay poor water quality. The methods they plan to use to determine such a scale are still under development.
Finally, the project will reach the core of the investigation’s research; a large population survey, conducted most likely through the internet and mail services, asking people about their knowledge of water quality, and attempting to elicit how much they would be willing to pay to have quality water.
“In addition we would be hoping to do some transactions in buying and selling water quality improvements,” Kling said. “The hard thing is water quality is not bought or sold in markets. That is why we are doing this research.”
Although this project, “Valuing Water Quality Improvements in Midwestern Ecosystems: Spatial Variability, Validity, and Extent of the Market for Total Value," has no direct impact on water quality, it is expected to make the process for improving water quality easier by quantifying the variables on which water-related decisions involving the economy are made.
The project is set to begin on April 1, 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's website.
Researchers on staff for the project include David Keiser at CARD, Jacques Finlay of the University of Minnesota, Daniel Phaneuf at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christian Vossler at the University of Tennessee and Jinhua Zhao at Michigan State University.
“When this call for proposals came out and indicated that the EPA was going to be funding, I really wanted to win that award so we could do this work," Kling said. "It is very exciting on a professional basis and on the possibility that it can really matter and be used on state and federal levels."
At the end of the project’s three-year lifespan, Kling is confident that they will know more about how people think about water quality, and the trade-offs they’re willing to make off of other goods and services to obtain it.