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Study warns of potential inequities from water infrastructure investments

Ezra David Romero

The research paper advised that more robust financial planning at the start of major multi-agency water infrastructure projects can help ensure that all partners share the resulting water and financial outcomes.

More and more often, water agencies throughout California are being asked to work together to bolster water infrastructure. For instance, the Friant-Kern Canal is currently being repaired thanks to a partnership between the state and federal government and local water agencies, local groundwater sustainability agencies have been tasked with community engagement for the sake of groundwater management, and Governor Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio Initiative sets out a plan for spending billions over the next decade on water storage and conveyance projects.

But a recent scientific study asked: who is ultimately paying for these projects, and what outcomes should investors take into account other than the water that they gain? For instance, when it comes to local water agencies that are funded by rate payers, “their users will be paying for this infrastructure in the form of debt and that debt is paid off over generally several decades, and so these have long-standing impacts,” said Andrew Hamilton, a civil engineer at Cornell and the lead author of the new study. “And so if they’re going to take on this debt, we really want to understand, okay, what will they be gaining in terms of new water supplies and how will those water supplies be distributed across the different water providers who are partnering together?”

Hamilton and his co-authors used a supercomputer to model the outcomes from a variety of infrastructure projects in a variety of agency partnerships and climate scenarios. And in the study,published in the peer-reviewed journal Earth’s Future, the authors warn that insufficient planning of projects like these can lead to unequal benefits. Even when cost-sharing, collaborators like groundwater sustainability agencies and irrigation districts may not end up splitting the resulting water and debt fairly.

“We do find there are particular sets of water providers that on average tend to do better in these partnerships,” Hamilton said. For instance, those with more access to surface water like canals and rivers may end up with more water, for cheaper, and with the ability to pay back debt faster. Water rights, too, make a difference, as some water users are set up to take on a surplus during wet years. “Those providers which are really set up to take large gulps at a time tend to do really well,” he said.

However, Hamilton cautions that these are not hard and fast rules. He also found that stakeholders are likely to fare better when water transport projects like canals are paired with groundwater recharge projects.

The study is not intended to be a how-to guide, Hamilton pointed out, but rather a signal that more resources need to be available for water agencies before they embark on major water infrastructure projects. “The major takeaway is it’s complicated and more analysis needs to be done,” he said, “so that these irrigation districts and water utilities really have the information they need to make these many-million-dollar investments.”

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.