Mar 08, 2024

February 2024 Field Updates: Exploring the Connections Between Recreation, Water Quality, and Economic Value 

Kicking Off a New Project

This February marked the addition of a new research project to the Estuary Program’s monitoring repertoire. Known as Recreational Use Monitoring, the primary goal of this project is to track visitation and recreational activities at popular coastal access sites across the bay. Sites include sandy beaches, boat launches, marinas, and parks, capturing a wide variety of coastal recreation activities that are common in Morro Bay. This project is currently in its early stages, but we are starting to look for additional volunteer support to help with surveys in the coming months. If you are interested in learning more about the project or getting involved, please reach out to our Monitoring team at

Kayaking is a very popular pastime for estuarine recreators.

The Value of Recreation

What did you do the last time you ventured into the estuary for some fun and relaxation? Did you paddle across the channel to enjoy a picnic lunch on the sandspit? Dip your toes in the cool waters at Coleman Beach? Stroll along the Marina Peninsula trail to catch a glimpse of the birds foraging on the tidal marsh? There are numerous activities people engage in while in the estuary. And unless you’re renting equipment or paying for services, many of these activities are free and available to anyone at any time of day.  

Even though there may not be a price tag associated with your favorite type of recreation, there is inherent value in having the ability to conduct these activities within a pristine natural setting. This is the concept of non-market value, or the economic benefit stemming from things that aren’t bought or sold in traditional markets but still have intrinsic value to society. Non-market values for coastal recreation have been estimated from peer-reviewed studies and models; however, to apply these estimates to activities within Morro Bay, visitation surveys are needed. These surveys provide information covering the types of recreation taking place and the number of people engaging in those activities. Once that data is collected, the economic value of recreation within the estuary can be better understood.

A surveyor counts cars and people as they arrive at Pasadena Park, a popular coastal access site in Los Osos.

Tracking Recreational Use Over Time

While it probably seems obvious to most that enjoying our natural resources has value, quantifying this value in monetary terms can have many benefits. A dollar amount converts the more nebulous notion of “value” into an actionable item that is accessible to those who may not engage in coastal recreation themselves. The Recreational Use Monitoring effort is working towards estimating the cumulative value of recreation at eight popular sites along the estuary’s waterfront. This will be accomplished using the methods established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that use counts of cars and people to estimate visitation (Mulvaney et al. 2020). Along with these counts, surveyors collect water quality data and assess the health of the shoreline (e.g. presence of trash at the site, sulfur smell from excess algae, etc.).  

The map above displays the eight Recreational Use Monitoring sites, spanning from Coleman Beach (COL) to the end of Pecho Road (PCH) in Los Osos.

In addition to estimating value, the Estuary Program wants to develop a greater understanding of the relationship between environmental health and visitation. Research has shown that when the beaches and parks along the waterfront are clean, they attract more visitors, and are therefore more valuable, than those that haven’t been well-maintained. This connection between visitation, site quality, and value culminates in the long-term goals of this project: to quantify the importance of maintaining healthy sites, prioritize the restoration of sites that have been degraded, and establish a baseline of estuary use to compare with future surveys.

How Can You Help? 

If you are interested in helping collect this valuable data set, the Estuary Program is looking for volunteers to join the project within the next few months. Surveys range from one-hour to four-hour time commitments and can take place on weekday or weekend afternoons on a monthly or bimonthly basis, depending on volunteer availability.  Please reach out to if you’re interested in helping with this project.

Help us protect and restore the Morro Bay estuary!