Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Research Highlights: The Value of Clean Water

Just how much are people willing to give for a dry basement or a healthy stream? University of Illinois economics professor Dr.Amy Ando and her Ph.D. student Catalina Londoño Cadavid sought to answer this question through their IWRC-supported study: “Measuring Public Preferences over Stormwater Outcomes in Illinois: Willingness to Pay and Willingness to Help.”

With its history of stormwater problems, Chicago seemed like the natural place for an Illinois-based researcher to ask this question. And Chicago is also home to a large low-income population, which allowed Ando and Cadavid to add an interesting twist to their research. If people don’t have the ability to pay for relief from stormwater flooding, would they volunteer time to receive some benefits of reduced flooding?

Chicago is starting to employ green infrastructure, or low impact development, as a way to address its persistent struggle with combined sewer overflows during big rainstorms. Features like rain gardens and rain barrels have joined a massive tunnel project, and their presence also means that, in Ando’s words “there are other ways [besides money] for people to contribute, because maybe rain barrels need to be checked or rain gardens need to be weeded.”    

Ando and Cadavid worked with Reed College professor Noelwah Netusil to create a survey to reach 500 Chicago-area residents for their opinions on stormwater-related flooding and environmental damage. Developed with input from Chicago-based nonprofit Center forNeighborhood Technology and Chicago’s Departmentof Water Management, the survey measured residents’ willingness to pay for stormwater improvements with money, volunteer hours, or a combination of the two. Traditionally, Ando explains, consumer choice studies like this use cost as the “lynchpin that translates choice into willingness to pay.” But by using time as a form of payment, the research team was able to push the envelope of economic methods and include the opinions of lower income residents through scenario options that would actually be available to them.  

While Ando and Cadavid originally intended to mail out a survey, when the cost became prohibitive Cadavid proposed Qualtrics. A data collection and research firm, Qualtrics enlists volunteers on survey panels, where they can then opt in or out of a survey opportunity to earn points redeemable for prizes. The survey relies on an online platform, but it also ensures a representative sample of the population is collected and provides computer access to those without. The survey was carried out during the fall and winter of 2012, and the collected respondents’ opinions were a bit unexpected.

Few survey respondents reported any personal experience with stormwater flooding. For example, only 33% of respondents recalled any flooding event in the past year, while less than 6% had experienced four or more flood events. Consequently, few respondents felt that flooding relief was something worth paying for, either with time or money. Rather, greater value was placed on improving environmental attributes like water quality and aquatic health in local streams. People also showed themselves willing to pay much more through in-kind contributions of time than through direct payments of money (if time is valued at people’s wage rates). Ando and Cadavid speculate that this could be driven in part by people gaining value from directly participating in neighborhood improvement projects.

While the final results of the study haven’t been published yet, Cadavid did depend on this study to successfully defend her Ph.D. dissertation this spring and additional findings were presented at national meetings over the summer. As for application of the research, Ando calls that outreach the “fun part” of working in a land-grant university. Not only does she plan to follow up with the original partners who helped develop the survey, but she also intends to use the data to help the U.S. EPA generate more complete estimates of the benefits of green solutions to stormwater problems.