Mainstream and heterodox approaches to water quality valuation: A case for pluralistic water policy analysis

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Cost-benefit analyses have largely failed to demonstrate a positive benefit to cost ratio for programs designed to improve and protect water quality in the United States and European Union. At the same time, research from outside economics suggests that water quality ranks among the most urgent environmental concerns and highlights deep social and cultural connections to clean water. Exploring alternative explanations for this apparent water value paradox is essential to informing contemporary rulemaking and regulatory analyses, such as the Clean Water Act and the debated Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. I review contemporary advances in mainstream environmental economics relevant to the value of clean water, frontiers that have not yet been integrated into mainstream valuation methods, and pluralistic approaches from sociology, history, and moral philosophy that offer policy-relevant insights but do not fit neatly in cost-benefit frameworks of valuation. The review concludes with recommendations for improved water quality planning and policy in pursuit of a more comprehensive and pluralistic understanding of the value of clean water.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)235-258
Number of pages24
JournalAnnual Review of Resource Economics
StatePublished - Oct 6 2020

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  • Cost-benefit assessment
  • Ecosystem services
  • Nonmarket valuation
  • Policy analysis
  • Public goods
  • Water quality


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