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New Study Estimates Annual Economic Value Of Northampton-Lehigh Master Watershed Steward Program At Over $140,000
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By Thomas H. Bruggink, PhD, Lafayette College

Volunteer environmental groups play an important role in improving water quality in Pennsylvania streams.  A new participant in this effort is the Master Watershed Steward Program, which initiated in 2013 in Northampton and Lehigh Counties.

This is a government-funded effort to train and manage volunteers in a variety of environmental and natural resource activities, such as tree planting for riparian buffers, on-the-ground remediation projects, educational events, etc. 

The Penn State Extension Service runs the program in partnership with the local Conservation District watershed specialists.

Measuring the monetary value of these conservation efforts is useful to the public and lawmakers, as they want a return to justify the expenses of this program.

Measuring the benefits of environmental volunteer organizations is a challenge.  Several techniques are possible, but the one that receives focus here is the direct measurement of the value of the environmental activities (output approach). 

This relies heavily on information that is not normally available, and it requires local expertise to select necessary parameters.  Nonetheless the Lehigh Valley does offer a unique opportunity to do this. 

Conceptually, measuring the annual benefits of the MWS program is a matter of monetizing the value the public receives from preserving and improving watershed services, and then assigning the proportion that is attributable to the MWS volunteers. 

The former can be done for a given watershed but it is hugely expensive and time consuming.  The latter is nearly impossible to determine objectively, but reasonable divisions can prove informative.  

Recently the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC) completed a major study on the value of environment goods in the Lehigh Valley (Lehigh and Northampton counties).  

Specifically to this topic the $117.5 million annual value (in 2018 dollars) assigned to the stream infrastructure highlights the importance of protecting watershed health and integrity.  This represents the annual cost that taxpayers would otherwise have to pay for these environmental goods. 

This is the starting point for assessing the value of watershed conservation efforts.  It is proposed here that the monetary value of watershed conservation is the prevention of lost benefits due to the degradation that would occur in the absence of conservation.

The cessation of conservation activities includes no monitoring and law enforcement of point and non-point pollution in the streamways, no building and repairing of riparian buffers, no monitoring of new development adjacent to streamways, etc. 

The consequential environmental degradation and higher water treatment costs would be gradual, and the consequences may last for more than a year even if this were only a one-year cessation.   

Monetizing the benefits of conservation efforts for the MWS involves confronting two measurement problems. 

The first is assigning the appropriate fraction of the $117.5 million to the various conservation activities.  This monetizes the benefit of the government agency and voluntary efforts needed to preserve the $117.5 million annual environmental value. 

For example, if conservation efforts cease for a year and the environmental value of the streamway infrastructure eventually falls from $117.5 million to $111.625 million (a 5 percent drop), then the conservation efforts are worth $5.875 million that year. 

The benefits are the prevention of loss. 

Let D represent the percent degradation that would occur if conservation ceased for one year.  At best we can only assign a range of values for D that would seem reasonable. 

Applying this range to the $117.5 million will give us a range of economic values for the degradation.  This monetizes the environmental benefits of conservation. 

Using a range from D= 0.01 through D = .05 will give us conservation benefits ranging from $1.175 million to $5.88 million. 

The second measurement problem is determining the fraction of the conservation value to assign to the various conservation activities. 

For example what portion of the $5.88 million in the example used above can be assigned to MWS?  Let A represent the allocation of all conservation efforts that can be credited to MWS.   If A is 3 percent, then the economic benefits of the MWS are $176,625. 

If A is 4 percent then the MWS’s value is $235,000. 

All this suggests that if values for the parameters D and A can be determined, at least within a range, then a range of economic values for the Master Watershed Steward program can be presented.  

Let the range of values considered for D be from 0.03 to 0.05, and the range of values considered for A be from 0.02 to 0.04.  This gives a benefit range from $47,000 to $235,000.  

By taking the midpoints of both ranges (D = 0.04, A = 0.03), the result is $141,000.   If placed in this context, this number can represent the MWS benefit.

It is important to assess the value of the MSW group because taxpayers fund this and deserve a good return on their investment. 

The 2018 operating cost of running this program, according to the Northampton/Lehigh MWS coordinator Erin Frederick, is $27,000.  

By working the values for D and A it can be determined that this program more than pays for itself as long as D and A equal to or exceed 0.02.   

Therefore under reasonable judgments for avoidable environmental degradation (D) and volunteer contribution (A), the Master Watershed Steward organization provides a good return on the government costs of running this program. 

This would support proposals for expansion to other counties in Pennsylvania.

Click Here for a copy of the full study.

[For more information on the program, visit the Northampton & Lehigh Master Watershed Steward Program webpage.  Questions should be directed to Brad Kunsman, Penn State Extension, at 610-813-6612 or send email to: bkunsman@psu.edu.

[Master Watershed Steward Programs can be found working in 13 counties so far.  Click Here to learn how you can volunteer in an existing county or start in a new one.  Questions should be direct to Erin Frederick at 610-391-9840 or send email to: elf145@psu.edu. ]

Thomas H. Bruggink, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus, Lafayette College and a Master Watershed Steward of Northampton/Lehigh Counties and can be contacted by sending email to: thome7@aol.com.

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2/18/2019

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