The Value of the Sea

Leer en español

When deciding whether it is useful to invest resources in a public good, one must compare costs and returns. If the returns outweigh the costs and risks, then we would be better off by allocating resources to the investment. What if such public or private good already exists, such as a part of nature, and we ask ourselves: Is the value of maintenance greater than the cost of upkeep? Or can we do better by developing it into something else?

Think of the Grand Canyon, a US national park that had close to 4.6 million visitors in 2013 [1]. Consider the economic benefits of those visitors and the price of preserving the park in its natural state. What if, instead, we could develop the Grand Canyon to build malls and casinos? Would it bring in more revenue? Many would argue, with reason, that given the uniqueness of the national park, the Grand Canyon in its natural state is a more valuable resource than in any other form.

Value is usually gauged by market prices. Given that the Grand Canyon is not a market good with a price tag, what is its value? Economists have long thought about ways to elicit the value of non-market goods, paving the way for the field of environmental valuation [2] . Many valuation methods have been used to produce estimates of existence and use value of natural habitats. These estimates often provide robust lower bound measures of worth that are high enough to justify the existence, maintenance or development of new parks, beaches, forests, etc. Economists have found that value can be determined by the prices people are willing to pay to visit a place, or how much they would pay to preserve it (even if they do not intend to visit) and by taking into account how changes in environmental quality affect wildlife, human health and worker productivity [3].

So, what do economists say about the value of the Salton Sea?

In 2007, two economics professors from the University of California, Riverside, Kenneth Baerenklau and Kurt Schwabe, delivered preliminary estimates of the non-use benefits of the Salton Sea [4]. The non-use value amounted to about $1-$5 billion per year. The study took into consideration dozens of peer-reviewed articles that produced the value of similar habitat preservation, most notably Mono Lake and the San Joaquin Valley. The results reported are only for non-use benefits, meaning that with inclusion of health and subsequent worker productivity benefits (from avoiding exposed lake bed dust) and use values, such as fishing, camping, etc., we could obtain even higher returns for saving the Sea. Additionally, updating the results to reflect changes in the environment and the economy since 2007 should increase the Sea’s value estimate.

We often hear media and policy makers complain about the cost of saving the Sea, but they do not usually take into account the non-use benefits of $1-5 billion/year. Additionally, as mentioned in previous posts, the Pacific Institute estimated that the cost of the preferred restoration plan would be around $10 billion, as opposed to the cost of inaction, around $29 billion in the best scenario [5]. The cost of action vs. that of inaction alone already tilts the balance in favor of saving the Sea. But if we factor in the lower bound of the non-use value estimates, $1 billion/year, at the most it will only take about ten years for that $10 billion investment to pay dividends.

It is commonly said that we do not know what we have until we lose it. Given the unique values of the Salton Sea region, we cannot just sit by and wait until total loss awakens us to the abrupt realization of its value.

Written by Gustavo Mellior

[1] How Many Visitor Come to See the Grand Canyon? Retrieved from

[2] Champ et al., A Primer on Market Valuation, 2003, Springer

[3] Freeman et al., The Measurement of Environmental and Resource Values: Theory and Methods, 3rd edition, 2014, RFF

[4] K2 Economics, 2007. “A Preliminary Investigation of the Potential Non-Market Benefits Provided by the Salton Sea.” Report to the Salton Sea Authority. Prepared by K. Schwabe and K. Baerenklau

[5] Hazard’s Toll, Pacific Institute, 2014

3 thoughts on “The Value of the Sea”

  1. Take a look at the 260 page report prepared by the IID who are the majority owners of the bottom of the Salton Sea. Reading between the lines the meaning of the code word called “mitigation” is to have the California Taxpayer believe and pay for the illusion of saving the Salton Sea. What the reality is the IID wants access to the largest geothermal energy field in the nation and the billions of dollars of lithium and other valuable minerals in the geothermal brine. This can only be done by misleading the general public so the IID and their industrial proxies can have unfettered access to the vast income potential of a dry lake bottom by turning it into a industrial park with a eco friendly mud puddle attached. Restoration would be to have the State of California invest for the benefit of present and future generation to come by paying for two 30 inch pipes to fill the Salton Sea with ocean water from the Gulf of California. Using geothermal distillation in the Niland area we can generate desalinated ocean water 80% cheaper than reverse osmosis. The waste brine can be converted into highly profitable industrial chemicals, building materials and green energy systems. Ocean water throughout the world is being used in the desert sand to grow fish, shrimp, algae, potatoes, salicornia, sweet sorghum and a mangrove forest. This would reduce the dust storms in the desert, sequester carbon in the mangroves and cool the desert. We could generate sustainable employment, alternative fuels, food, biomass, grain and building materials. The entire ocean water farming would be organic and the fish farms would provide the fertilizer for the plant life. These are the ideas that are available on the internet for a sustainable future.


    1. Hey Leroy, This is Drew Story, one of the authors here at Thanks for reading our post on environmental valuation! We have read the IID SSRREI proposal. We think it is a comprehensive and thorough plan that considers all stakeholders. IID is a publicly owned utility, and as such, the purpose of the IID is to provide electricity (and water), at the least cost, for its customers. IID is not a for-profit utility.
      IID and Imperial County realize that they have the most to lose if nothing is done about the Sea. And they are also aware that the last proposed “solution” for the Sea had a price tag close to $10 billion, because of which the state has been hesitant to make any action. It seems to me the IID and Imperial County are proposing a plan that will eventually pay for itself after the state invests the $3 billion up front, only a fraction of the most recent $10 billion proposal, and prevent irreparable damage to the local ecology and human health.
      You have mentioned several times that you know of technology that can desalinate ocean water 80% cheaper than RO, and that the waste brine can be converted into ” highly profitable industrial chemicals, building materials and green energy systems.” I’d be very interested to see some documentation of these technologies, and the ability to convert dissolved salts into industrial chemicals. Please feel free to share those with me! You can email us at
      Thanks again for your passion about the Salton Sea! Please remember I am speaking for myself. Each member in our team of 10 has their own opinions and viewpoints.
      Best Regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: