Money Talks: The value of Santa Clara County open space

The natural and agricultural landscapes that surround Silicon Valley are much more than pretty hills and hiking destinations. We can thank those hills, valleys, and creeks for the many “ecosystem services” they provide that touch each and every one of us—fresh air, drinking water, healthy food, tourist attractions, educational opportunities for students, carbon sequestration, flood protection, and the list goes on.

How do you put a value on these goods and benefits?

For the first time ever, Santa Clara County has calculated the economic value of its natural capital with help from the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority and Earth Economics. The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County also participated in similar studies in their respective counties.

The report, Healthy Lands & Healthy Economies, Nature’s Value in Santa Clara County, estimates that Santa Clara County’s natural capital provides $1.6 billion to $3.9 billion in benefits to people and the local economy every year. And unlike built capital (e.g. roads, bridges, and buildings) which depreciates over time, natural capital is mostly self-sustaining and its ecosystem services appreciate over time.

“If we actually had to pay for these ‘free’ services, the price tag would likely be out of reach,” says Andrea Mackenzie of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority. “When we measure the dollar value of Santa Clara County’s natural capital assets and related benefits, we see how nature provides the foundation for a thriving local economy.”

Even a small investment in land conservation can produce a high rate of return. For example, in 1997, New York City was faced with a choice: spend nearly $10 billion to build a water filtration plant or protect the city’s drinking water at its source for a fraction of the cost. The City chose the latter, and has protected nearly 70,000 acres of land in the Catskill/Delaware Watershed while New Yorkers enjoy the largest unfiltered water supply in the country. Read more about New York here.

Santa Clara is the fastest growing county in California and demand for housing far outstrips supply. We are experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of the ongoing drought and increased wildfire risk. All of this puts pressure on our natural and agricultural landscapes, threatening the goods and services they provide. By putting a dollar value on these benefits, we can make smarter decisions and do more to protect and steward these lands.

And this November, we have the opportunity to do so. The Friends of Santa Clara Valley Open Space, which is co-chaired by Greenbelt Alliance, is leading the campaign for Measure Q, a $24 annual parcel tax measure that would fund the preservation of natural and agricultural lands, increase in public access to open spaces, and protection of county water supplies.

Now that we know how much our open space is worth, Santa Clara County can use preservation funds more strategically and efficiently. So vote yes on Measure Q this November.

Learn more about Measure Q.

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