The steering committee of the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape will host public meetings on May 14, 15, and 16 to present the results of the Value of Clean Water study examining the costs and benefits of land use choices in the Laurel Highlands Region. The study estimates the value of ecosystem services in the region, including nutrient and water regulation, water supply, recreation, and aesthetic value, totals $3.7 billion annually.

Without proper funding and resources devoted to maintaining and improving watershed health in the region, the Steering Committee concludes they could see continued erosion of these benefits.

The focus region for this study is defined by 21 sub-watersheds within the Youghiogheny and Loyalhanna-Conemaugh basins in the Laurel Highlands region, and overlaps five counties—Cambria, Fayette, Indiana, Somerset, and Westmoreland.

The study models the return on the environment (ROE) that local communities can receive from restoration and conservation projects.

By cleaning up damaged streams, preserving natural habitats, and bringing more people, visitors and new residents to experience our Laurel Highlands environment, both the economy and the watersheds can thrive.


Among the more specific findings in the report:

Clean up Water Pollution: To improve water quality from a severely polluted to unpolluted state, households would be willing to pay between $140 and $180 per year (2018 dollars) for five years. Applying these survey results to the Laurel Highlands region, we estimate a potential benefit of at least $1.1 million for improving the water quality of streams currently classified as impaired for people who participate in water-related recreation activities.

Cleaning up Abandoned Mines: Surveys of households in the region reveal residents are willing to pay for AMD remediation, or in other words, they value restoration of AMD-damaged streams at $20 to $32 per household. The 257,000 households in the region could experience $3 -$8 million in benefit from restoration efforts.

Installing Stream Buffers: By treating a portion of the 654 stream miles in the region impaired by runoff with vegetated buffer strips, we expect to see economic benefits in the region, including a $4.65 million increase in property values within the riparian zone of treated streams, water treatment cost-savings of 4 percent to public water suppliers, and increased recreation visitation and expenditure from fishers and boaters.

Impacts from Gas Drilling: Almost 9,000 natural gas wells are currently active across the Laurel Highlands’ watersheds. By 2030, an additional 1,466 unconventional well pads may be constructed in the Loyalhanna, Conemaugh, and Youghiogheny watersheds, resulting in the loss of over 30,000 acres of forest and agricultural land.

Over 15,000 of these acres lost would be in critical recreation and habitat areas including state parks and lands, native trout watersheds, and within a half-mile of exceptional value (EV) or high-quality (HQ) waters.

Unconventional natural gas drilling requires more intensive resource use than conventional wells; the average unconventional natural gas well in the region uses 7.4 million gallons a year of water and discharges up to 600,000 gallons of wastewater, while disturbing on average 30 acres of forest habitat.

Natural gas development in the region will also affect habitat for native species and recreation.

The average natural gas well pad constructed in forested areas will yield $63,200 in annual lost ecosystem service value, or over $62 million annually in the regional watersheds. Losses in agricultural productivity from natural gas infrastructure could amount to $58 million a year by 2030.


Among the recommendations made in the report are:

Cost-Benefit Analyses: Cost-benefit analyses for funding and resource management decisions (such as AMD treatment, stream restoration, land conservation, and future energy development) should begin incorporating dollar values of ecosystem services where feasible. The analysis on economic values associated with abandoned mine drainage  passive treatment, natural gas infrastructure development, and riparian buffers provide strong foundation for integrating this information at a local or regional level.

Reframe Water Quality Cleanup Discussions: Regional watershed groups and organizations can utilize the dollar values in the baseline ecosystem service assessment to reframe discussions on the value of water and natural resources within the community.

Click here for a summary of the study.

Public Meetings

Residents, elected officials, business developers, and concerned citizens involved in conservation of natural resources are invited to the public meetings to learn more about the dollars-and-cents value of the benefits we receive from nature, and the new economic models for assessing how their policies, plans and decisions can increase or reduce these benefits.

The meetings will be held:

May 14: Nimick Family Education Center, Loyalhanna Watershed Association, Ligonier, Westmoreland County from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m.;

May 15: Disaster’s Edge Environmental Center, 1889 Park,  South Fork, near Johnstown, Cambria County from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.; and

May 16: Seven Springs Resort, Sunburst Forum, Champion, Somerset County from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.

Visit the Economic Study on the Value of Water webpage for more basic information on the study.

The Region

The region is comprised of mostly rural counties with local economies still largely tied to agriculture and extractive industries. Many are led to believe that the environmental consequences of mining, drilling, and logging are just trade-offs to maintaining their livelihood.

For decades, that prevailing narrative has pitted economics and the environment against one another, suggesting that a choice must be made between jobs and income and investment in the natural landscape.

These folk-economic ideas could not be further from the truth; protecting and restoring watersheds go hand in hand with developing and maintaining a strong, vibrant economy for generations to come, as this more comprehensive economic study shows.

Winning The Trifecta

Entrepreneurs, visitors and retirees are attracted to the natural beauty of the Laurel Highlands and the quality of life it supports.

Forty-four million potential visitors live within 200 miles of our region, rich in world-class destinations such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and world-class recreation such as white water rafting on the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle or at Whitewater Park on the Stoneycreek River, and biking the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Laurel Highlands has the potential for what the study’s lead author, environmental economist Dr. Spencer Phillips, PhD., of Key-Log Economics, LLC, refers to as the “Rural Growth Trifecta” of outdoor amenities, a creative class of 21st Century workers, and a strong “entrepreneurial business context.”

The Valuing Clean Water Return on Environment Study quantifies a more complete picture of how environmental interventions can result in greater benefits to communities of the Laurel Highlands.

Sponsors of this study include the Watershed Committee of DCNR’s Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative.