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What’s the value of our waterways?

Many cities and counties along the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida are having a good time deciding how to spend the money they’re receiving in settlements from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster of 2010.

To read about the fights our so-called public servants get into over how to spend this money makes them perfect candidates for “The Jerry Springer Show.” But aside from the gagging political theater, I’m reminded there is a genuine point to grasp from the outcome of the nation’s worst oil spill.

For me, it comes from an assessment by two learned observers: Temperince Morgan, who is executive director of the Nature Conservancy Florida, and Robert Bendick, who is director of the Gulf of Mexico Program for the Nature Conservancy. For an industry like ours that’s dependent on water, their on-point conclusion should resonate: that the price BP is paying dramatizes the true value of the Gulf (really, all our nation’s waterways).

Let’s put this into perspective. The $61.6 billion BP is paying so far is enormous and unprecedented. It’s bigger, for example, than the value of GM or Ford. With that money, we could buy 575 super F-35 fighter jets that took 15 years to develop and the Defense Department admits likely can’t outmaneuver a Sopwith Camel.

Seriously. Morgan and Bendick, writing for the Tampa Bay Times contend: “Economists have long tried to put an economic value on our natural resources, often without clear results, but the cost to BP of the Deepwater Horizon spill is an indication of the immense value of just one environmental resource.”

To be clear, the money is being paid to cover costs of cleaning up the three million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf for 87 days; the damage to tourism, fishing, businesses and individuals; the costs of resource restoration; and for cities and counties damaged when work was interrupted.

To Morgan and Bendick, there are a variety of points made in all this in determining the Gulf’s worth:

First, it is clearly “unacceptable to our society to allow substances like crude oil to befoul beaches and marshes and to kill fish and wildlife, hence the need to rapidly contain and clean up spilling oil,” they contend.

They also emphasize what we in the boating industry must continually assert — that many thousands of people depend on healthy waters for their livelihood, be it on the shores of the Gulf or anywhere else on the nation’s rivers, lakes and oceans. Tourists don’t visit oiled beaches. Commercial and recreational fishermen can’t fish in contaminated waters. Families don’t launch their boats into oily waterways.

Damaged resources must be repaired to restore their function and value. Restoration is time-consuming and costly, but it must be done at all costs.

Finally, those who break environmental laws must pay. The political system has held BP accountable for the damage, Morgan and Bendick emphasize, and BP has stepped up and paid the costs. In effect, these are transactions that reveal the value placed by our society on the environment — something often obscured in less dramatic circumstances, they say.

Morgan and Bendick say the absence of newsmaking disasters like the Gulf oil spill can lead us to take our resources for granted. They are right.

While oil spills are issues right now, our industry is currently facing the fallout from proliferating algae blooms in waterways across the nation. Just think about the economic costs to your dealership if the waterways near you are suddenly filled with blue-green gunk you can literally shovel off the surface.

This potential long-term negative impact on the sales and use of our products is a no-brainer if the algae devastation isn’t reversed now. Accordingly, our industry must be engaged in calling for policies and urging actions that will provide viable solutions.

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