One of the most critical unknowns, for both resource managers and policymakers, concerns whether what is true for small-lake ecosystems even applies to large lakes. Can a large lake, like a small one, reach an “alternative stable state”? That is, can it reach a state of environmental degradation that will be unaffected by incremental interventions like reducing new inputs of phosphorus? Limnologists think so, but they have no way to prove it without risking the loss of an entire large lake ecosystem in the process. If they’re right, then reducing the phosphorus entering Lake Erie’s Western Basin to zero might not be enough to restore the lake’s economic and environmental value.
Meanwhile, decisions and choices must be made. The policymakers who must make them might begin by reviewing an intriguing body of work by University of Wisconsin-Madison economist William Brock, much of it in collaboration with eminent limnologist Stephen Carpenter. Brock’s models evaluate a variety of environmental policy choices through the lens of economic utility, calculating the net present value to society from activities that can pollute our waters (e.g., increased agricultural production or residential and industrial development) and from healthy ecosystems (clean water, fish and game, recreation).
His analyses uncover hidden values, suggest new options for action, and offer more than a few useful guidelines for policymakers threading their way between the rock of scientific uncertainty and the hard place of political exigency.
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