How much is a delta smelt worth?

If you’ve ever wondered what the “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL” signs along the dry, dusty section of I-5 mean, look no further than page 27 of this week’s Economist, which explains California’s water problems. In 2007 a federal judge ordered the state to reduce pumping from the Sacramento Delta because the delta smelt, a three-inch long fish, were getting sucked into the pumps and killed, and the delta smelt is a protected fish. Anyway, as the Sacramento Delta is the primary water source for farmland in the Central Valley, many farmers have let some fields lay fallow for lack of water, resulting in high unemployment, livelihoods hurt etc.

Now normally I don’t pity farmers much because of the generous subsidies they get from Congress every year but the question is interesting. There’s an old joke where a man asks a woman if she would sleep with him for 5 million dollars and she says Of course. Then he asks her if she’d sleep with him for 5 dollars, and she says “What type of woman do you think I am?” He replies, “We’ve established that, now we’re haggling over price.” The man was probably an economist. The point of the joke is everything has a price; if something, like preservation of delta smelt, had infinite value, it would be worth spending all of our money trying to achieve it and the economy would head down the drain.

Let’s go ahead and establish upper and lower bounds on the price. While some in PETA may disagree I think that if it would cost our entire National GDP for one year to save the smelt, we should probably let them go. And most everyone would agree that if we could save them for free (and actually for free, not in a way that hurts other animals), we should go ahead and do that. So the true value of preserving the delta smelt is between zero and $3 trillion, an encouraging start.

Can we estimate how much the fish would pay to avoid a horrible pumping death? No. For humans, we generally do this by seeing how much people are willing to pay for life insurance, preventative surgery, and then figuring out their implied valuation. If I’m willing to pay $10,000 dollars to reduce my chance of death by 1 percent, then I value my life at $1 million. This is impossible to do with fish. Does it necessarily follow that the price of a fish’s suffering should be zero? No, although judging by the rate at which we slaughter chicken and cows, it’s going to be pretty low.

All of the ways to measure the price depend on how the thing would impact humans. There’s no real other way to look at the problem, at least until fish develop their own market economy. We could look at each of the following:

- The chance the extinction of delta smelt would ruin the ecosystem and the economic consequences of the ruin of the ecosystem, in terms of local fishing economy, adverse weather, flooding etc, all of which we can estimate.

- The amount of money environmentalists are willing to spend to save the delta smelt. Judging the amount of money environmentalists spend trying to save various animals may be a way of figuring out an animal value system. Is a panda worth more than an elephant? Inquiring minds want to know.

- The chance that we can later reintroduce the delta smelt, through genetics or cryonics or something, if they do go extinct. If this chance is high the value on their current preservation should be low.

- The amount of pain and sadness everyone in the world would feel if the fish were to go extinct. In a sense I think this is what environmentalists work so hard to prevent; their own future sadness.

- The economic consequences of unemployment and drought in the Central Valley if we don’t keep the water flowing.

All of these will be messy, but unlike the problem of figuring out how much the fish hates pain, at least we’d be able to try; there’s no doubt the question’s complicated but we should probably be able to get within a factor of ten of the correct value.