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On Dec. 8, 2011, a U.S. Senate panel approved a plan for $415 million to be spent on the restoration of Lake Tahoe over a decade. This was in addition to $1.4 billion spent to restore or protect Tahoe since 1997. It reflects the enormous value of a lake such as Tahoe and the importance of avoiding deterioration of water quality.

Flathead Lake is much the same size as Tahoe. Maintaining clean water in the Flathead and its watershed is worth a great deal in protecting real property values and avoiding the high costs of future remedial work.

How do Montanans value the high quality water in the Flathead watershed? While there is no generally accepted method for such an estimate, one measure may be the market value of residential properties – the privilege to live in an area. For example, 2010 per capita residential property valuations in the following counties were:

Lake: $63,624

Missoula: $36,379

Flathead: $62,665

Lewis and Clark: $32,450

Gallatin: $53,495

Yellowstone: $28,912

Park: $45,183

Cascade: $24,143

Ravalli: $44,812

Silver Bow: $20,419

The value we put on our natural wonders is in the billions. Had per capita values in Flathead County and Lake County been the same as in Missoula County, residential property valuations in these two counties would have been $3.1 billion lower. Had they been the same as in Cascade County they would have been $4.6 billion lower. This $3 billion-$5 billion in residential property value is at risk if water quality and other amenities decline in Lake and Flathead counties.

Studies in Minnesota and Maine have shown that impaired water has led to a drop in home values by tens of thousands of dollars. Property values are the tax base supporting essential public services such as schools, roads, public safety, and some health care costs. Property tax revenues in Flathead and Lake counties, $176 million in 2010, could drop by millions if water quality in our lake and watershed, currently impaired, deteriorates further.

Whether to protect the value of residential and business properties (most people’s primary asset), or to avoid costly remedial work such as required at Lake Tahoe, modest increases in funding for water quality monitoring, protection against aquatic invasive species, and other initiatives would be a wise investment. This can ensure that a high quality of water in the Flathead is enjoyed by future generations. Better schools, public safety, and roads all contribute to higher property values and a stronger regional economy. So, too, do clean waters, particularly in counties such as Lake and Flathead. Much is at risk. A “Made in Montana” solution exists by redirecting limited tax dollars for greater protection of water quality.

Roger S. Smith,


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