Measuring the value of groundwater and other forms of natural capital

Eli P. Fenichel, Joshua Abbott, Jude Bayham, Whitney Boone, Erin M K Haacker, Lisa Pfeiffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Valuing natural capital is fundamental to measuring sustainability. The United Nations Environment Programme, World Bank, and other agencies have called for inclusion of the value of natural capital in sustainability metrics, such as inclusive wealth. Much has been written about the importance of natural capital, but consistent, rigorous valuation approaches compatible with the pricing of traditional forms of capital have remained elusive. We present a guiding quantitative framework enabling natural capital valuation that is fully consistent with capital theory, accounts for biophysical and economic feedbacks, and can guide interdisciplinary efforts to measure sustainability. We illustrate this framework with an application to groundwater in the Kansas High Plains Aquifer, a rapidly depleting asset supporting significant food production. We develop a 10-y time series (1996-2005) of natural capital asset prices that accounts for technological, institutional, and physical changes. Kansas lost approximately $110 million per year (2005 US dollars) of capital value through groundwater withdrawal and changes in aquifer management during the decade spanning 1996-2005. This annual loss in wealth is approximately equal to the state's 2005 budget surplus, and is substantially more than investments in schools over this period. Furthermore, real investment in agricultural capital also declined over this period. Although Kansas' depletion of water wealth is substantial, it may be tractably managed through careful groundwater management and compensating investments in other natural and traditional assets. Measurement of natural capital value is required to inform management and ongoing investments in natural assets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2382-2387
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number9
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016


  • Comprehensive wealth
  • Genuine investment
  • Groundwater
  • Inclusive wealth
  • Sustainability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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