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When deciding whether it is useful to invest resources in a public good, one must compare costs and returns. If the returns outweigh the costs and risks, then we would be better off by allocating resources to the investment. What if such public or private good already exists, such as a part of nature, and we ask ourselves: Is the value of maintenance greater than the cost of upkeep? Or can we do better by developing it into something else?
Think of the Grand Canyon, a US national park that had close to 4.6 million visitors in 2013 . Consider the economic benefits of those visitors and the price of preserving the park in its natural state. What if, instead, we could develop the Grand Canyon to build malls and casinos? Would it bring in more revenue? Many would argue, with reason, that given the uniqueness of the national park, the Grand Canyon in its natural state is a more valuable resource than in any other form.
Value is usually gauged by market prices. Given that the Grand Canyon is not a market good with a price tag, what is its value? Economists have long thought about ways to elicit the value of non-market goods, paving the way for the field of environmental valuation  . Many valuation methods have been used to produce estimates of existence and use value of natural habitats. These estimates often provide robust lower bound measures of worth that are high enough to justify the existence, maintenance or development of new parks, beaches, forests, etc. Economists have found that value can be determined by the prices people are willing to pay to visit a place, or how much they would pay to preserve it (even if they do not intend to visit) and by taking into account how changes in environmental quality affect wildlife, human health and worker productivity .
So, what do economists say about the value of the Salton Sea? Continue reading “The Value of the Sea”
Many of the predictions and concerns about the future of the Salton Sea are based on historical examples of other salt lakes around the world, and their impacts on local communities—some beneficial, and some disastrous. Three examples of highly saline terminal lakes, the Aral Sea, Owens Lake, and the Great Salt Lake, show some of the possible outcomes for the Salton Sea.
The drying of the Aral Sea has intense negative effects on communities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in terms of local economies, environments, and health. As the sea dried, dust storms and soil loss resulted in desertification of croplands and contamination of surface fresh water.  The shoreline retreated by miles, crippling the local economy, which was dependent on fishing and transportation. Due to extensive pesticide usage in the area, the dust from the Aral Sea contains DDT, PCBs, dioxins, and heavy metals, which have been found at high levels in pregnant and nursing women in Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan.  Public health studies in the area have found widespread thyroid abnormalities, as well as lung malformations in children. 
Continue reading “Similar Seas: Salt Grass, Shrimp, and Selenium”
Imperial County, where the Salton Sea is located, tends to be associated with agriculture, and there are many reasons why this is so. According to the Imperial County’s agricultural report the gross value of farm products reached 2.15 billion dollars in 2013 . That is more money than the GDP of at least 30 countries. In more concrete terms, around 80% of the winter crops consumed in the United States are grown in Imperial County. Since economic geography is continuously changing and in light of California’s ongoing drought and expected changes from the diversion of water to San Diego County, one wonders how big of a role can agriculture continue to play in the region. It is hard to predict what will happen. While the heat and water on the surface are quintessential for the economic powerhouse that is agriculture in this region, the heat and water under its ground evoke another major opportunity that is increasingly becoming more and more important: geothermal power. Continue reading “A Treasure Buried Underground”