Rivers provide society with numerous returns. These relate to both the passive and extractive uses of the resources embodied in river environments. Some returns are manifest in the form of financial gains whilst others are non-monetary. For instance, rivers are a source of monetary income for those who harvest their fish. The water flowing in rivers is extracted for drinking and to water crops and livestock that in turn yield monetary profits. However, rivers are also the source of non-monetary values arising from biological diversity. People who use them for recreation (picnicking, swimming, boating) also receive non-monetary returns. The use of rivers to yield these returns has had negative consequences. With extraction for financial return has come diminished water quantity and quality. The result has been a diminished capacity of rivers to yield (non-extractive) environmental returns and to continue to provide extractive values.
A river is like any other asset. With use, the value of an asset depreciates because its productivity declines. In order to maintain the productive capacity of their assets, managers put aside from their profits depreciation reserves that can be invested in the repair or replacement of those assets. Society now faces a situation in which its river assets have depreciated in terms of their capacity to provide monetary and non-monetary returns. An investment in river “repair” is required. But, investment means that society gives up something now in order to achieve some benefit in the future. Society thus has to grapple with the choice between investing in river health and other investments - such as in hospitals, schools, defence etc. - as well as between investing in river health and current consumption - such as on clothes, food, cars etc. A commonly used aid for investment decision making in the public sector is benefit cost analysis. However, its usefulness in tackling the river investment problem is restricted because it requires all benefits and costs to be measured in dollar terms, and many of the benefits arising from investments in river health are non-monetary.
In this paper, techniques that enable non-monetary values to be estimated in dollar terms are described. Applications of the techniques to the estimation of the environmental values of rivers are demonstrated. The values estimated are used to demonstrate the extent of returns that are possible from investing in river health.