Across the country, planners and policy makers are starting to consider the value of natural capital assets (watersheds, forests, grasslands) and ecosystem services. Federal agencies, in fact, are now required to incorporate ecosystem services into planning and decision making.[i] From federal- to local-level planning, there is more interest in understanding nature’s benefits, an important piece that before now was often missing.

Adding ecosystem service values to planning and decision making creates a more complete, accurate understanding that ultimately fosters more practical and cost-effective outcomes. But applying ecosystem service values is not an easy task - many groups need training and support. In Arizona, Earth Economics has joined in to help groups incorporate ecosystem services into planning for the Sabino Creek watershed.

Tucson, Arizona’s Sabino Creek is a critical part of the regional ecosystem and economy. It’s a complex area, and there are often competing interests for its water supply, sometimes at a cost to area ecosystems. The creek and surrounding watershed provide critical services such as water supply, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, erosion control, and flood protection. Sabino Creek also directly benefits local residents through increased property values and improved health via recreation. These ecosystem services are too often taken for granted, and yet they represent significant long-term contributions to the local economy.

Each year, lower Sabino Creek’s ecosystem services contribute between $1.4 million and $2.1 million in benefits to the local economy. Not only that, but Sabino Creek’s net asset value (as an asset with a 100-year life span at a 3% discount rate) reaches between $46 million and $81 million.  The numbers are impressive, but they are also highly conservative – for many ecosystem services, data is not yet available to assess their value. It’s clear that Sabino Creek is valuable, and it will continue to provide value as long as the health and function of the creek are maintained through restoration and stewardship.

View of Lower Sabino Creek

View of Lower Sabino Creek

In late March, several EE researchers traveled to Arizona to meet with stakeholders interested in measuring and including natural capital values in their planning. Throughout the busy week, the Earth Economics team provided high level overviews and more intensive training sessions for local leaders representing the Community Water Coalition, the Watershed Management Group, the Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the Verde Front Leadership Council, and the Pima Association of Governments Environmental Planning Council. The sessions focused on helping local groups understand the general concept of ecosystem services, their application in decision making, and the specific value of Sabino Creek’s ecosystem services, all while emphasizing the importance of a healthy environment to a robust economy and strong community.

The ecosystem services valuation and workshops are key steps in empowering decision makers to find the best ways to steward the watershed in the future.  “We’re giving stakeholders a common language for how to talk about these issues and to incorporate values into project analysis tools,” said Matt Chadsey, Program Director at Earth Economics. The work with stakeholders in Tucson will likely continue, but for now, the ecosystem services valuation and this crucial training in applying values lays the groundwork for effective benefit-cost analysis and project planning.  

Photo Credit: Watershed Management Group

[i] https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2016/m-16-01.pdf