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The Social Cost of Water Pollution

The most recent issue of Land Economics, a special issue entitled “Integrated Assessment Models and the Social Cost of Water Pollution,” is now available. The papers in this issue stem from a 2019 workshop organized by David Keiser, Catherine L. Kling, and Daniel J. Phaneuf. Read an excerpt from the introduction to the issue, written by the organizers.

The eight papers in this issue were presented at a workshop titled Integrated Assessment Models and the Social Cost of Water Pollution. The event took place on April 3–5, 2019, at Cornell University. This was the second annual workshop, part of an ongoing effort to understand how changes in water quality affect society, with the ultimate goal of providing estimates of the “social costs” of water pollution that are useful for policy analysis across broad spatial scales. This requires moving beyond economic case studies, emphasizing instead multidisciplinary research operating at large spatial scales and involving economists, ecologists, hydrologists, and related disciplines. It also requires coordination with state and federal agencies, NGOs, and other stakeholders to provide tools that have both scientific rigor and practical usefulness. The workshop brought together academic economists, ecologists, hydrologists, and agricultural engineers; agency scientists and policy experts; individuals from private sector institutes; and students to hear talks, participate in discussions, and build foundations for future collaborations.

The reference to integrated assessment models (IAMs) in the workshop title serves to emphasize the scale of ambition for this research community. An IAM is a collection of modules that individually describe the components of a complex system and work together to understand how the overall system works. Disciplinary specialists contribute their own expertise to build the IAM components and also cooperate with other researchers to assure that the components are compatible. Estimating the social costs of water pollution involves linking the sources of water pollution with their fate and transport in waterways, their impact on downstream ecosystem services, and changes in economic value or costs among affected populations. This requires the expertise of hydrologists, ecologists, and economists, respectively.

The specific papers are examples of progress to date. They include a mix of IAMs focused on predicting the economic benefits from improved water quality, IAMs looking at the costs of achieving pollution reduction objects, and studies that explore specific components needed for integrated assessment. The applications span locations and spatial scales, such as iconic water bodies and their surroundings (Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes), a state-level analysis focused on Michigan, a river basin scale application to the Republican River in Kansas/Nebraska, individual watersheds in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, and a nationwide application. Collectively the studies illustrate the range of research tasks, challenges, and products that define the agenda of research on the social costs of water pollution.

To learn more, browse the table of contents and read the open access article “Including Additional Pollutants into an Integrated Assessment Model for Estimating Nonmarket Benefits from Water Quality” by Robert Griffin, Adrian Vogl, Stacie Wolny, Stefanie Covino, Eivy Monroy, Heidi Ricci, Richard Sharp, Courtney Schmidt, and Emi Uchida.