The Costs of Poor Watersheds Are Paid in Water Treatment … and Property Damage

Written by AOS Treatment Solutions on October 24, 2016


A clean, woody watershed can save cities millions in water treatment costs, a study by Yale scientists and other U.S.-based institutions found this year.

Cities and people have not taken care of urban watersheds, and now, because of agricultural chemicals and increased sediment, close to 90 percent face some level of degradation. The liability from polluted water and increased treatment costs is more than $100 billion, the study claimed.

Rob McDonald, one of the study’s authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the world’s communities need to manage their water resources more carefully.

And some have.

The Efforts Already Taken

Of the 309 cities the study evaluated, 25 percent had made some investment into protecting their local watersheds. McDonald told Reuters that both Tokyo and Boston have instituted robust land-use rules to protect watersheds.

But for many, watershed investments have been, so far, too few or non-existent. And a big reason is that water treatment savings are hard to quantify.

A past study from the Environmental Protection Agency said that “environmentalists and economists frequently suggest that there would be a greater incentive for environmental stewardship if ecosystems services were valued in a manner that reflects the large contribution they have to our economy and society.” The agency goes on to say specifically that investment in healthy waters “can significantly lower costs associated with water treatment and flooding.”

In December of last year, floods in Missouri and the Midwest cost taxpayers approximately $3 billion. Accounting for the country’s 10 biggest floods since 2010, the costs are reportedly near $34 billion.

By improving watersheds, the EPA study claimed that cities could minimize property damage and cleanup costs from flood damage and storm surges.

The study’s authors wrote: “Forested cover prevents runoff from moving rapidly across the landscape and allows it to slowly infiltrate into the soil, reducing erosion and high flows. Intact wetlands store and capture excess water.”

The Cold, Hard Figures

But again, without hard numbers, promises of savings are hard to investment in. So here are some clear-cut figures:

  • Examining the cost of filtering New York City’s drinking water, the EPA determined that watershed conservation compared to building a new water filtration plant could have saved the city upward of $8.5 billion dollars.
  • Examining wastewater treatment costs, the agency determined cities could save more than $2.50 per 1,000 gallons of treated wastewater by choosing wetlands construction over conventional treatment means. In Boston, it’s estimated that the city’s surrounding wetlands have prevented an estimated $42,111 in flood damage.

But perhaps the most significant savings — thinking in terms of several years — come from improving watersheds’ forest coverage.

A watershed with 60 percent forest can expect annual treatment costs of $297,110. If that coverage were reduced to only 10 percent, the estimate costs would skyrocket 211 percent to $923,450. Over a 10-year period, that’s an additional $6.2 million just in treatment costs. It doesn’t include the increased property damage caused by floods or the incalculable price of being left more vulnerable to the future effects of climate change — which healthy watersheds can help stave off, according to the EPA.

A healthy watershed is a smart investment because not only does it promise strong returns, but it protects other investments and provides cities with a more stable infrastructure.

Posted Under: Groundwater Treatment Solutions