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State, UC study Southern California seaside economics

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
Posted April 26, 2000

From July 4 through Labor Day, 1999, when beaches in Southern California are normally packed to the gills, Orange County's Huntington State Beach was closed due to sewage leaks and poor quality water.

It would have cost several billion dollars to close the beach temporarily and rebuild the storm drains. Water management officials, however, had no idea how the closure would affect turnout and revenue at nearby beaches. Nor did they have a cost analysis on which to base the longer-term consequences of a two-month closure.

To address this lack of information, representatives from the Santa Monica Restoration Project, seven government agencies, the University of California and University of Southern California have joined forces to find out how much it costs the state and the public when the region's beaches are shut down.

"We've really never tracked the habits of Southern California beach-goers using these recreational enclaves over time," said Michael Hanemann, an economist specializing in coastal water quality issues at Berkeley. "But when you consider that about 75,000 people will visit the beach on a typical summer day, it's important from an economic standpoint to understand what people do when their beaches are suddenly closed."

The $800,000, two-year study, begun in December 1999, is the most comprehensive conducted in the United States to characterize the many choices residents make when faced with beach closures. Researchers conducting the survey will use information they obtain from 900 survey participants to determine what a day at the beach costs.

"We want to put a price tag on our beaches, and to do that, we need to understand the tradeoffs people make," Hanemann said. "Do people use beaches that have been declared unhealthful or dirty? Do they go elsewhere? Do they tolerate high parking costs and a lack of rest-rooms? Does the weather keep them away?"

The Berkeley economist is working with Berkeley colleague Michael Ward, David Layton of UC Davis, and Linwood Pendleton of the University of Southern California to gather and analyze data in this large-scale study. Results will be used to help support storm water management programs and other pollution prevention activities in beach communities up and down the Southern California coast.

Concern over last year's Huntington Beach debacle makes the study especially pertinent to policymakers who are intent on improving coastal water management programs throughout the state. Information obtained by telephone every six months will be used as a template for surveys planned in Central and Northern California.

"The methodology involved in this kind of survey is very complicated because it involves a myriad of choices that need to be accounted for," Hanemann said. "After Phase 1 is completed in December, we will focus on constructing a model that can be used by state economists to assess the economic impact of a variety of beach closure scenarios. Once we have some mathematical calculations to work with, we'll be able to carry out these surveys in other coastal regions around the globe."

An extended study has already been initiated farther north of Los Angeles County, in the coastal communities of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Northern California beaches are expected to be the next target.

"The bottom line is simple," Hanemann said. "There's an obvious economic advantage to maintaining clean water and beautiful beaches in California. When people stop going to the beach, businesses suffer, as does the quality of our lives."



April 26 - May 3, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 30)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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