New Study Determines Economic Value of Clean Water

May 20, 2015

Remember that old MasterCard commercial, asserting that that value of some things are priceless? What about clean water? Emily Bright brings us a new Vilas County study that puts an economic value on its surface water—and it might be higher than you think.

"Are you really going out today?"

"Oh, yeah. I surf all winter in New York so, it’s all good."

It’s classic, unpredictable May weather in the Northwoods. Hardly above freezing, but Daniel Feller is only visiting Eagle River for a week, and he’s not going to let cold scare him away from his favorite water sports.  “I love to surf, and it’s nice to come up here and try to be on the flat water with the paddle board. We’re excited to do some bass fishing, and I might try to get a rod out on the paddle board. It’s cool because you can actually see down into the water. The water’s so clear on our lake. Right? And you can see where the spawning beds are and you can just cast right into the spawning beds."

Feller’s family has been coming to stay on an Eagle River lake for 100 years. He’ll be back later this summer for more. Feller rents a paddle board from Wildwood Outdoor Adventures in Eagle River.

“Now, what kind of paddle can I get for you guys?”

Nicole Bach and her husband have owned the business for six years. They rent, sell, and guide tours for stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, canoes, and pretty much any other toy you can use outside on the water. As with many tourist-driven businesses, they are only open as long as people are out on the water. Case-in-point, the business isn’t heated. “We’re very seasonal, so on days like today when it’s really chilly, it’s really chilly inside here. Hats, scarves, it’s all good.”

During the months they’re open, it’s 7 days a week, and 12-hour days aren’t uncommon. There’s no question that water—clean water—is essential for their business. Bach says, "We just, we have some really nice clear water around here and a lot of public access, too, which makes a big difference. It brings a lot of people up here to the Northwoods to be able to enjoy the beauty of it."

That natural beauty is the backbone of Vilas County’s economy, as it is for much of the Northwoods. And at the heart of that is clean water. More than 3-quarters of Vilas County’s taxable property value is waterfront property—a major contribution to the tax base.

“Studies have shown that water quality in the lakes determines property value. They are very closely intertwined, which makes sense, you know, nobody wants to buy property on a lake that they can’t swim in or fish out of.”

That’s Quita Sheehan of the Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Department. Sheehan is one of the authors of a new study--by the department and UW-Extension—to put a dollar sign on the economic impact of clean water. 61% of homes in Vilas County are seasonal, and a UW-Whitewater study found that people spend $74 a day when they occupy those seasonal homes. Says Sheehan, “That includes things like going out to eat and buying groceries but also house maintenance and plowing driveways, that kind of thing. And so if you estimate, if everyone was here on those seasonal homes on the same day, all spending $74 that day, they would spend over a million dollars."

One-point-one million dollars—if all seasonal residents came on the same day. It’s a little harder to calculate visitor spending, since visitors are also drawn by non-water recreation like snowmobiling. Says Sheehan, “What we estimate is that in 2013 they spent over $200 million, which is a direct per capita spending, given our population of just over 22 thousand of 9 thousand dollars per person.”

That’s worth saying again. The money that visitors--drawn by Vilas county’s water--bring in comes to $9000 per Vilas County resident. Vilas county rank 3rd in highest per capita income, behind Sauk and Door Counties. Oneida ranks 5th, Iron County comes in 7th, and Forest county 8th , and in per capita direct spending.

Linda Senkevicius is a retired teacher from Illinois. She started coming to  Land O’Lakes. “Oh, I’ve been up here since I was one. Always up in Northern WI. And then our children went, and now our grandchildren love it, too.” 

13 years ago Senkevicius moved to a year-round home on Lake Minocqua in Oneida County. I met Senkevicius sitting on her front patio, listening to the birds with her two golden retrievers, who love the water as much as she does. Senkevicius no longer partakes in the fishing and water sports that now draw her grandchildren, but the sparkling lake in her backyard is central to her lifestyle.

“Oh, it’s heaven! You look out every morning. Wake up to it! Go to bed with it!...And we have Larry and Lucile, the two loons that come back every year—they’re our friends, and it’s just a totally different lifestyle.”

Senkevicius’ front yard looks out on wetlands, where all the birdsong is coming from. Wetlands may not provide the recreation that lakes do, but Sheehan says they are just as important: "The wetlands are the kidneys for the lakes. So we have to protect the wetlands if we’re gonna protect the water quality in the lakes and the streams."

34% of Vilas County is wet—and more than half of that is wetlands. Lakes and streams make up about 15% of the county. And all of that groundwater is the source for our drinking water.

So, why do the study? Because while most people can agree that it’s nice to live near clean lakes and streams, protecting that water quality requires time and effort. Measures to avoid the spread of invasive species and reduce levels of phosphorus, for example, might not be convenient, but this study shows that in the long-run, protecting surface water in the Northwoods is a wise economic investment.

Emily Bright, WXPR News, Eagle River