Jon Goldstein, Estévan Arellano, Najem Raheem
How much is something worth? If you are looking at an ounce of gold, a pound of rice or a barrel of oil, the answer is easy. Markets exist to set prices between buyers and sellers. But what if you are trying to establish the value of clean air and water, the cohesiveness of your community or your health? What if you wanted to understand how much each of these things was worth in order to knit them together and establish the value of an entire ecosystem?
Economists call this establishing the value of “ecosystem services,” and believe it is no less important than setting the right price for a barrel of West Texas crude. By working together, economists, ecologists, local residents and others can help begin to set the values for the pieces that make up the ecosystem. Through study, interviews with locals and research, values of clean water to irrigate crops, or well-functioning wetland habitat for aquatic species begin to come into sharper focus. Understanding these values can help protect these natural landscapes in the face of development pressures and a changing climate. This understanding also helps scientists bolster what is working and transfer lessons learned to other landscapes that may not be functioning as well.
Putting a Dollar Value on Ecosystems
In July, 2013, a team of scientists, policy experts and local citizens, let by Dr. Steven Archambault of New Mexico State University and Dr. Najem Raheem of Emerson College in Boston, began such an effort to examine ecosystem service values in acequia communities in northern New Mexico.
By distributing water from the high slopes of the Sangre de Cristos, acequias literally provide the lifeblood of these communities. They are also the defining structure in the ecosystem. Their banks are typically green ribbons in the desert, grown up with willows and grasses that provide habitat for a number of species, while the unlined ditches also allow water to seep into and recharge local aquifers.
Understanding the value of the ecosystem services these acequias provide will help us to protect this unique ecosystem as pressures mount. Ecosystem service values let us compare between different uses of water by using a common measurement: money. The dollar value of acequia water rights or property development is fairly straightforward to figure out; by understanding the dollar values of the ecosystem services these landscapes provide, communities can make better decisions in the face of these pressures.
What’s Clean Water Really Worth?
For example, once values are established for what economists term “non-market resource”—things like clean water or wildlife habitat—these values can be included in policy considerations or cost-benefit analyses. For an acequia, establishing these values could help a community seek full and just payment from a developer seeking to alter the landscape. Or, these values can be used to compensate a community when an ecosystem becomes degraded through an environmental accident. This approach, to more fully and holistically value the worth of an ecosystem after a manmade disaster, is exactly what the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science has recommended in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill.
Climate change has already been diminishing winter snowpack in the region, and projections show this could get much worse. As the Los Angeles Times noted last year, in the drought gripping the entire western US, New Mexico was the driest of the dry, with reservoir storage dipping to a mere 17 percent of normal. Even after the summer and fall rains and snow, three-quarters of the state continues to experience moderate or extreme drought.
How will the acequia systems and landscapes cope with these pressures? Will an altered climate and less runoff mean the end of these ancient systems and the traditional villages that depend on them? Or is the acequia half full? Is it possible that this community-built and maintained infrastructure can actually provide greater resiliency and adaptability in the face of a drier climate?
It will take a few years for researchers to start developing answers to these and other questions. But their effort will help protect these communities and the landscapes they inhabit, as well as, potentially, provide us all a lesson in how to better cope with a changed world.
To date, the team has assembled a framework for understanding what ecosystem services occur in which areas, from the upper slopes of the sierras all the way down through the solares and towns, the acequias and ciénegas to el río. This is part of several papers they hope to publish in the scientific literature. What the team needs most now is participation from local communities. The work to date needs to be discussed with community members to ensure that it is widely held to be correct and understood. From there the team needs to start talking about what the values people might hold for these services, whether they are cultural or not. This will involve surveys, interviews, and a variety of other research methods.
Ultimately, the dollar values of these services are what you think they are. We need your help to find out what our water systems, our ecology, is worth. And how we can compare those values to the economic values of alternatives.
Jon Goldstein, M.A., former secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and deputy secretary at NM Environment Department, is senior Energy policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Author and community leader Juan Estévan Arellano has devoted most of his life to documenting the traditional knowledge of the Indo-Hispano in northern New Mexico, especially as it relates to land and water.
Nejem Raheem, assistant professor of economics at Emerson College in Boston, received his Ph.D. in economics from UNM, writing his dissertation on the acequias of El Río de las Gallinas.