We’re Not All Theme Parks

Regional Economic Models Inc. recently hosted two webinars showcasing uses of their models in valuating two specific resources in Florida. In The Bridge to Space the SR 405 bridge that links the Kennedy Center and Patrick Air Force base to the mainland was under the ‘scope, and another focused on the Wekiva River, one of Central Florida’s few near-pristine river systems, a National Wild and Scenic River comprising over 110 square miles, including 42 miles of flowing water, and 34 named springs.

Years ago damage to the SR405 bridge, from age, hurricanes and water rise, made it increasingly hazardous for “heavy aero-space payloads,” and Luis Nieves-Ruiz, of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, was called in to assist local planners on the pros and cons of replacement using models, some that his team developed. Replacement turned out to be a true no-brainer: annual spending by tourists alone was found to be twice the replacement cost, even without the big assist from U.S. DOT. Permitting is now underway, securing over $300 million in annual tourist spending, and billions in corporate sales and GDP, not to mention big science.

Although the price tags on the Wekiva River are much lower, it is also crucial to its region. Nieves-Ruiz’s estimates run to 429 jobs, $51 million in output sales, $19 million in personal income, and a $30 million add to GDP. And property values. (As that old California joke goes, prices on the Pacific Coast Highway are much higher for even-numbered addresses.) A degraded river system puts minus signs before those numbers.

Photograph from Florida State Parks

According to Nieves-Ruiz, Florida’s springs are developing some issues with algae, brought on in part by water being transferred to development and away from stream flow, a particularly dangerous situation since Florida’s water supply is almost entirely reliant on aquifers. Nieves-Ruiz notes that remediation is more expensive than protection.
And we’ll add not always possible, and we’re still in the early stages of understanding our natural water systems. For example, it was only in 2013 that the aquifers under Australia, North America, China and South Africa’s continental shelves, holding something like half a million cubic kilometers of low-saline water, came to light. And we now understand that, remediation efforts notwithstanding, deep the organic soils in our water-systems take thousands of years to develop.

Local, targeted work, such as these studies, that re-prices the un-priceable, our natural jewels as Nieves-Ruiz put it, shows us the many paths to a sustainable economy. Although he didn’t say it like so, Nieves-Ruiz corrected the local practice of applying the much higher daily spending of theme-park visitors, with their full-service hotels and high-ticket prices, to visitors to the Wekiva system, with their “primitive camping” and canoe rentals.

And that’s kind of the point. Keeping these lower priced activities whole is part of the critical local netwok that safeguards the entire state’s water supply.