MANATEE -- As it turns out, the choice between a healthy natural environment and a prosperous human environment in the Sarasota Bay area is no choice at all. The people who live here and visit here are willing to pay for both.
For the first time, a study just completed for the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program places dollar values on natural resources in and alongside Sarasota Bay, and it shows both are critical to driving the Manatee-Sarasota economy. It also contrasts those values against the worth of housing, jobs and the tourism industry.
Authored by Eckerd College environmental studies professor Paul Hindsley, the study pegs the value of everything natural and man-made in the bay, its estuaries and watershed at $11.8 billion. This figure is part of an overall $57.9 billion resource value set for the entire Tampa Bay region.
The two-year $100,000 study examined many bay-related revenue streams, including annual visitor spending, job creation, tax revenue, enhanced property values and how much visitors and residents are willing to pay for a day of snorkeling, fishing or other recreational activities. It also explored how much locals are willing to pay for wetland restoration, ecological parks and planting sea grass.
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Sara Kane, public outreach manager for the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, said the 150-page document shows how a healthy environment creates value for the Manatee-Sarasota area as a tourist destination, a place to live and the site of natural resource-based industries such as fishing and boating. The data generated in the document could affect future regulatory decisions regarding shoreline development and bolster stronger clean water rules.
"The bay is our biggest economic driver in this area," Kane said. "We just hope this study proves that."
Sarasota Bay encompasses 455 acres of watershed, smaller bays, rivers, islands, shoreline and the Intercoastal Waterway between the north end of Anna Maria Island and just north of Venice. About 600,000 people live in that area -- all of whom, Kane said, depend on it for everything from drinking water to employment.
Between 2008 and 2012, governments, SBEP and private groups spent nearly $234 million on water quality and habitat improvements in Sarasota Bay and its watershed. Kane said a similar amount will be spent in the current four-year period.
Hindsley and his team of researchers quantify the dollars-and-cents investment payoff through a variety of data. Looking at how the bay's natural assets affected the value of near-water residential property, the research team found homes less than 1,000 feet from Sarasota Bay sell for an average of $90,235 more than those inland. The difference is even higher for homes on the Gulf of Mexico at $148,841. The study calculates the total value of homes with proximity to the two bodies of water at $3.6 billion.
The researchers also found 21,000 jobs, or one in every 17 in the region, depends on the bay, creating a workforce that generates $731 million in earnings annually. Tourism is behind many jobs with nearly 7.5 million people traveling to the area each year to spend $1.15 billion.
On the public side of the equation, Sarasota Bay is responsible for generating $184 million in additional tax revenue for bordering counties and cities.
The study puts a dollar value on resources not commonly evaluated.
"It's difficult communicating these things to the general public," Hindsley said. "How do you communicate the value of habitat when it's not a commodity?"
Researchers surveyed more than 1,400 Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay residents and visitors to place dollar values on aspects of natural lands and habitat restoration. The survey found, for example, area households would be willing to pay nearly $10 for an additional acre of ecological park space and $2.38 for an acre of wetland restoration through taxes and user fees.
Return on investment
The attractiveness of Sarasota Bay isn't an accident. SBEP, funded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state, Sarasota and Manatee county governments and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, has coordinated funding, volunteers and public policy for environmental projects for 25 years.
The payoff includes reducing nitrogen pollution in the bay by 64 percent since 1988, restoration of more than 1,200 acres of wetlands and the establishment of 30 nature parks.
Mark Alderson, SBEP director, said this led to higher water quality and a more scenic place to live and visit.
"Folks come to the area to enjoy the aquamarine water," he said.
There is room for improvement. Kane said the naturally vegetated shoreline that once protected the area against storms is still exceedingly rare in Manatee and Sarasota counties. More than 120 miles of the shoreline in the bay and its tributaries are "hardened" with man-made seawalls, effectively separating land and sea ecology and eliminating much near-shore habitat. While her group has made some inroads, including starting a "living shoreline" planting program and heading an effort to replace the estimated 160 acres of mangrove forests cut down in the two counties since the 1950s, the environment still needs more investment if it is to produce more value.
Being able to place a value on these efforts can boost the willingness of residents and governments to invest in a resource that benefits the economy, she said.
"One of the key takeaways from the study is the recognition of how important Sarasota Bay is to the entire region," Kane said. "Everybody is looking at dollars and jobs right now."
Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County director of parks and natural resources, said the study will help him look for the dollars his department needs, particularly in the form of grants, land acquisition and restoration funds. Being able to show how buying a wetland or planting sea grass will bring a return on investment is key in topping a list of grant appropriations.
"We've always struggled with putting a true market value on natural things," he said. "People understand the value of a dollar."
The study does not directly address measures for improving the ecology of the bay, nor does it delve into shoreline development. Alderson said the document is not intended to pit the value of natural resources against future development. It was created to provide a snapshot of the total assets of Sarasota Bay.
The study can be read in its entirety with this report on Bradenton.com.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.