According to a new report from the Huron River Watershed Council, the Huron River is more than just a pretty stretch of water flowing through southeast Michigan. The report, conducted in partnership with Grand Valley State University, was commissioned in 2016 and released last month. It puts a dollar value on the economic value of the river system.
Elizabeth Riggs. Photo by H. Buffman
Through tourism, outdoor recreation and ecosystem services such as stormwater retention, the study estimates that the river contributes $53.5 million in economic output annually, and more than $150 million annually in the economic value of ecosystem services provided by the Huron River. Leveraging those assets is the focus of HRWC’s River Up! program which works to maximize the recreational and economic assets of the river for the communities through which it travels
Metromode chatted with HRWC’s Deputy Director Elizabeth Riggs to find out more about how the Huron River contributes economically to the five southeast Michigan counties (Livingston, Monroe, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne) through which it flows.
Metromode: Why did the Huron River Watershed Council take on this economic impact study?
Elizabeth Riggs: The Huron River Watershed Council commissioned the study to measure the economic impact of the river on our local communities with a focus on river recreation. And we also wanted to know what is the approximate dollar value of the natural systems that are on the river; the wetlands, floodplains, and things like that.
And the reason we did this is because in 2012, we started River Up!, which is our placemaking effort for the Huron River and its communities. And we had the question even back then of, so what is the value of the Huron if we are investing in creating a water trail with our partners? If we are investing in improving river ecology or if we are trying to help our downtowns connect more meaningfully with the river, how do we measure that? And how do we measure what those investments are worth?
Metromode: You looked at recreation, biological diversity, wetland flood reduction and aesthetics. How did you decide on these aspects, and where did you look?
Riggs: We focused on collecting new data in six locations along the river from Milford in Oakland County down to Flat Rock in Wayne County, so we focused on trying to reach users through a random sampling survey in those places over the course of a month and a half during the summer of 2016.
That was a good start for us. I think in the future, we're looking at doing this again maybe in about seven years to see how things have changed. I think we'd do those sites again, but it'd be great if we could have even more points of interaction on the river.
Metromode: What does it mean when you say there is an economic value of recreation provided by the river?
Riggs: One of the results that we got from this study by Grand Valley State was understanding how much direct and indirect spending is happening on this river, on the water trail, from visitors. And that was about $53.5 million every year in economic output.
Direct spending is someone who comes to the river and wants to paddle, kayak and so they go to a livery, an outfitter, and they rent their equipment, and then they spend money on a meal, and maybe they make some purchases or you know, they go to an event that has a fee associated with it. So all of those direct spending.
And then the indirect is then the additional supplies that a restaurant would need to purchase for more meals. So it's those purchases by businesses, and then the research team also looked at induced spending, and that would be the spending that comes from the people who work at the restaurant and they going out and spending money in the community.
Metromode: How do you associate an economic value with something like the biological diversity of wetlands?
Riggs: The research team took a look at existing information, a conservative number of the total value of the natural systems on the river. So they looked at wetland biological diversity, flood mitigation, and they were able to say, "Okay, we know that an acre of wetland provides a certain amount of services that we can put a dollar value on." And then they extrapolated that for the whole river.
Metromode: How will the Huron River Watershed Council use this information?
Riggs: Well, in a few different ways. First of all, it's novel to have a study like this for a water trail or a river specifically. And we knew that because once this water trail became a National Water Trail in 2015, we started being able to network more with the other national water trails around the country, and we asked if anyone had done a study like this.
And we found there was a paucity of information. So that was one of the reasons that we were interested in trying to see what would this look like for a river; what could we share with some other groups around the country?
It’s simply to show that a river, river recreation, and the natural systems of a river can be viewed regarding dollar value because usually, that's not how people tend to think of them, tend to value them. But we can put a dollar value on it, and this study is actually a vehicle for us and our partners to demonstrate to businesses, to Chambers of Commerce and similar groups that there is real value in investing in having a clean, healthy river that people want to recreate in, live by, and set up businesses near.
This information also helps our organization and our partners with showing how important it is to have policies and educational outreach around the topics of trying to protect our natural features. And then also, being able to gain support for projects like what River Up! is doing.
Metromode: To what extent were you able to break down the results by city or county?
Riggs: Some of the information is arranged by county, certainly around the natural features, so folks can get a relative sense in their county along the river how that stacks up to the others.
And then in the full report, there is more detailed information; the socioeconomic data from our user survey, and because our survey points were spread out throughout four counties, people can see relatively like how does river-related recreation in Flat Rock differ from say, Dexter or Milford.
Metromode: Which communities are seeing the most benefit?
Riggs: The cities who are seeing the most benefit are the ones that are most ready to pivot to face the river and utilize it. So for example, downriver Flat Rock, in the past couple of years, there's been local businesses popping up related to river recreation.
So a couple of years ago that area didn't have any outfitters for paddle trips, now there are two companies down there that are growing. One of them, H2E Outfitters, said that just this past paddling season, their business was up 30 percent from the previous year. What all of this shows is that Huron River is a vital economic driver and it generates substantial income for local economies.