Applying economic principles to understand the benefits of infrastructure improvements to remote Alaskan communities
Submitted by Tetra Tech
Ridge Robinson has more than 30 years of experience in the water resources economics field and has worked on more than 200 water resources projects around the globe. Since joining Tetra Tech in 1998, Ridge has served as senior economist on many projects evaluating the merits of public infrastructure investments, including flood risk management, coastal storm risk management, navigation, ecosystem restoration, hydropower, and water supply. His project activities have included risk assessment and economic cost-benefit and cost effectiveness analyses for water resources projects.
Ridge holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Business Administration from Radford University.
What led you to a career as an economist?
I grew up in in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with a great love for the outdoors. I went to college to study business and economics, hoping to lay the foundation for a business career that would interface with the natural world and recreation. During school, one of my economics professors recommended me for an internship at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Institute for Water Resources. The internship turned into a job as a water resources economist where I worked to develop the methods that USACE now requires for the economic evaluation of all their ecosystem restoration projects. I have now spent more than 30 years in the field of water resources economics applying economic principles and methods to study natural and social systems and how they would be affected by human interventions and public policy.
How do you apply economic principles and methods to address your clients’ needs?
The majority of my team’s economic consulting work has been associated with evaluating the costs and benefits of investments in public water resources infrastructure. We apply economic tools and methods to provide information to support informed decision-making so clients can understand if a project is worth its cost. The bulk of the economist’s work is focused on the benefit side of the equation. In economic terminology, we develop and apply models to estimate the public’s willingness to pay for the benefits of a proposed project. When the willingness to pay for a project’s benefits exceeds the lifecycle costs of implementing and operating the project, you have economic justification. We also apply these tools to compare project alternatives and identify which options are better investments. The most common types of studies that our economics team work on include evaluating flood and coastal storm risk and comparing the benefits of risk management alternatives, assessing the benefits of restoring environmental functions and values, and evaluating the consequences of failure of aging infrastructure.
How have you incorporated water resources economics into climate change evaluations?
Working in Alaska for the past 20 years has enabled me to explore the social, economic, and environmental benefits of infrastructure improvements in underserved, remote Alaskan communities. Many of these communities have been on the front line facing impacts from climate change that threaten their continued viability.
Trends of elevated temperatures and reduced periods of protective sea ice have resulted in accelerated rates of permafrost thaw, shoreline erosion, and increased flood hazards in many coastal Alaskan native villages in the arctic and subarctic regions of the state. We have evaluated the costs—and social and anthropological impacts of alternatives—ranging from protecting communities in place, relocating entire communities, and colocating communities with other existing communities in less erosion-prone areas. Studying the social and cultural benefits of community and place was fascinating. One of the communities, Newtok, is currently executing a staged move inland to a new village at Mertarvik. We also have conducted interesting studies of the societal values of subsistence lifestyles and activities in Alaskan native villages.
In Utqiaġvik (known as Barrow until 2016)—the northernmost city in the United States—Tetra Tech was contracted by USACE’s Alaska District to perform economic modeling of coastal storm risk. Application of USACE’s traditional economic storm risk assessment model did not result in a finding of economic justification for a storm risk management project for the community. However, a project was critical to the continued viability of Utqiaġvik. We worked with USACE to develop a new economic assessment framework based upon the concept of community resilience. The model was approved by USACE and resulted in federal approval of the recommended coastal protection project in 2020. This was a professionally rewarding project for our team, and for me personally, as the new community resilience framework we developed was an adaptation of the ecosystem restoration economic evaluation framework I had developed for USACE at the Institute for Water Resources at the start of my career.
What changes have you seen in water resources economic policy over your career?
Historically, the focus for federal water and related land resources policy has been to optimize and select project alternatives that maximize net economic benefits to the nation while minimizing any adverse impacts to the environment. Other environmental, societal, and regional employment and income benefits of proposed projects have been addressed in feasibility studies but have not necessarily played a role in determining if a project is justified or not. This policy was changed by Congress with the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 and the new guidelines published by the Obama Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality in 2014.
The federal agencies with water resources missions are now looking more holistically at all categories of project benefits when determining if a project is justified. The recently passed Water Resources Development Act of 2020 has directed USACE to complete internal agency implementation guidance for these new policies and has established a new pilot program to reexamine the procedures for justification of USACE projects in rural and economically disadvantaged communities. All these changes in policy create more opportunity for water resources development projects to be implemented in underserved communities.
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