PUBLISHED: 19 May 2017

Conversations around the Water Table with Project Blue Thumb (Part Three)

Water worth

By Amy Spark

This post is part three of a six-part interview series conducted and written by Project Blue Thumb.

Project Blue Thumb is a multi-stakeholder social lab co-convened by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Alberta Ecotrust Foundation that takes a whole system approach to protecting water quality in the Red Deer River watershed. Building on the work of our current members, the PBT organizing team reached out to 13 multi-sector practitioners to hear their thoughts about the future of water in Alberta and potential directions. This post provides a snapshot from a few of our interviews relating to the multifaceted ways we value water.

I was reflecting recently on the value of a sticker. Remember what it felt like to receive a sticker on an assignment as a child? Remember what that meant: a symbolic pat on the back, something to be proud of. Even knowing their ‘true’ value as an adult (500 stickers for $4.99) still doesn’t take away the magic it represented.

A few weeks ago I was trying to determine the value of a postage stamp so I could calculate how many I needed on a letter to the UK. Rummaging through my desk drawer, I found some stamps that were too new to be valuable, and too old to be memorable. After peppering my letter with likely way too many stamps – just to be safe – I realized the ‘worth’ of them was just as symbolic as those stickers I received as a child. Although they are relatively cheap, they symbolize something very important to me: staying connected with my brother 6400 kilometres away.

The concept of ‘value’ has multiple dimensions. It is one of those queer English words which can act as both a verb and noun; one can value something and also espouse certain values. Values are inherently personal, yet the concept also governs all of our economic activities – seemingly one of the most impersonal activities we engage in.

This complexity is heightened when thinking of value in the context of water and the environment. It can take on the connotation of either intrinsic worth or monetary assessment.

Should we value water for the goods and services it provides to us, or for the endless impacts it has on our mental and physical health and the viability of ecosystems? At Project Blue Thumb, we often hear this discussion during workshops and interviews.

Let’s take a look at some perspectives we’ve heard over the past few weeks.

Laura Lynes with The Rockies Institute suggests that “we can’t have transformative change if we continue to look at everything with an anthropocentric view.” In fact, it is precisely this human-centered view which obscures the immense value nature holds.

“If we start to look at the value in this province… whether it is the river itself, fish, or animals (because we can also attribute value to other things that water supports) then all of a sudden water becomes such a greater need and value within our lives. We could start a different narrative around the value of water.”

By compartmentalizing the value of water, as opposed to looking at the value of the system to both humans and non-humans, Laura suggests we’re missing the larger picture.

Laura Lynes

Laura Lynes

In contrast, there is an argument for placing monetary value on water.  It allows the vast benefits of water to be quantified – however imperfectly – so that groups can begin to express value in a common language: the language of economics. Vice Dean of Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta, Dr. Vic Adamowicz explains, “Recognizing the value of environmental goods and services levels the playing field in the world of economics. If you don’t put a value on something it may effectively be valued at zero. Measuring a monetary value shows that environmental goods can have significant economic importance. It’s not about something being commoditized. It’s about valuation.”

This is precisely the objective of the burgeoning field of ecosystem services analysis: to place a value on the invaluable. These are the types of challenges academics and practitioners have begun to tackle, including the Natural Capital Lab here in Canada. The way Vic sees it, “We have designed markets around goods and services, so how can we support non-market items like source water while using a market economy?”

Vic Adamowicz smiling

Dr. Vic Adamowicz

However, it seems Canadians are a bit divided when it comes to putting a price on water. According to a recent RBC Canadian Water Attitudes study, “Although seven in ten [Canadians] agree that people will waste water if there is no price put on it, about the same number say that the price of water is high enough to ensure it is treated as a valuable resource.” (2017, p.7). This disparate view highlights the complexity of water valuation.

As ecosystem services analysis is disseminated and used, further questions come to light. Brett Purdy, Senior Director with Alberta Innovates points out, “For the most part, water has been free. But now, if we start to put a price on water, what will this look like? Do we put a price on water that’s different between food, energy, and recreation? Which do we value more?”

Brett Purdy post3

Brett Purdy

Is all water-use treated equal? Where does the line of ‘necessary’ water end and ‘extra’ water begin? If we do begin to economize water in this province, there are many implications to be discussed. For example, where does the valuation end? Is it from only direct use, or indirect use?

From a WaterPortal blog post on March 21, 2017, Brie Nelson suggests wastewater should not only be valued by what can be extracted from it, but also by its potential as a resource. Is it possible to include all potential uses of water by a monetary assessment? Are we truly able to categorize and monetize the potential of our headwaters or groundwater? If the value of a postage stamp or children’s sticker is hard to quantify, water is even trickier.

Whether or not value is assigned, communicating that value can be difficult. Ecosystem service analyses are often used as a communication tool to impact policy and regulation decisions. However, intrinsic worth – the type of value Laura is emphasizing – is a lot harder to articulate. For example, the mental and physical health benefits of a local river for nearby residents are difficult to express via numbers. Instead stories, photographs, poetry, art, lived experience, and music can be a lot more rich and effective. In order to capture the ‘true’ value of water, I believe all are needed: the science, the social science, and the art.

The central question seems to be whether or not we want to include the environment as an economic factor in our market system.

By commoditizing water are we further distancing ourselves from our natural landscape, or valuing it enough to protect it? Essentially, do we want to change our behaviour by using tools and language we’re already familiar with (ie: the market system) or develop a new value sets and valuation methods?  That’s for all of us, as citizens of a global community, to figure out.

I have a lot of fond memories of my family and water. We would take an annual trip to Adams Lake in Shuswap Country, where I would be thrown off the dock by the very brother I now stay connected with via snail mail. Although that lake has no direct economic effect on me, its existence is of value. I’m confident those living around the lake, and those who extract resources from it for their life and livelihood, value it as well – perhaps just using different language. In order to begin the conversation, it’s helpful to recognize that value is simultaneously economic, symbolic, and personal.

Check out our next installment of Conservations around the Water Table to be published 6 June, 2017 as we continue to explore the value of water through the topic of water rights and worldview. Bill Snow with the Stoney Tribal Administration will share his thoughts…

Curious about the project? See the Project Blue Thumb blog for information on our interview series, or join in the conversation on Twitter: @BlueThumbLab #ABwater.


RBC Foundation Blue Water Project (2017). 2017 RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study. Available at: