A fresh look at infrastructure

Methow Valley Irrigation District construction, TU photo by Lisa Pelly

By Laura Ziemer

The White House’s Infrastructure Week has come and gone, but there’s still an urgent need to address the nation’s backlog of aging infrastructure. With federal funds and programs under increasing pressure, we all know that rebuilding infrastructure is going to take innovation and new ways of thinking about everything from pipes to planes.

That’s why Liquid Assets is so exciting—it’s putting a fresh set of eyes on an old problem.

Liquid Assets is a multi-disciplinary project seeking to take a fresh look at meeting infrastructure needs in the rural West by harnessing the power of the private investor. Bringing together expertise in ranch lands, private capital, water law, aquatic habitat restoration, and sustainable agriculture, the project seeks to conserve water and agricultural lands by attracting private capital for investments in infrastructure upgrades and innovative land management—investments that will also improve rivers and fish and wildlife habitat in the western United States.

Following Trout Unlimited’s (TU’s) longtime conservation model, it’s all about collaboration. As usual, we’re lucky to have great partners. TU is working with Encourage Capital, a New York-based investment group that specializes in investments that solve social and environmental problems. We’re also working with Culp and Kelly LLP, a Phoenix-based law firm with expertise on water issues, Bowman Environmental Consulting, The Nature Conservancy, and ranch and grass land experts.

Through the Liquid Assets effort, TU and project partners will provide capital for ranchers to convert to sustainable ranching practices and for farmers to improve water use through crop switching or irrigation system improvements. By boosting both water savings and farm and ranch profits, we can avoid “buy and dry” land fallowing practices that can harm farm and ranch economies as well as rivers, streams and fisheries. The project invests in areas where the saved water can provide environmental benefits, either directly by enhancing stream flows, or indirectly by using the river as a conduit to deliver water to downstream users.

The Liquid Assets project received a big boost last week when the Natural Resources and Conservation Service announced that it was also investing $1.4 million in project through a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG). Authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, CIGs reward creative tools, technologies and strategies that boost productivity on farms, ranches and private forests while also improving water quality, soil health and wildlife habitat.

The NRCS’ CIG investment reflects the agency’s growing interest in the emerging financial sector of conservation finance and impact investment, which raises and manages capital to support land, water and natural resource conservation. “The Conservation Innovation Grant program is an example of government at its best, providing seed money to help spur cutting-edge projects,” said NRCS Acting Chief Leonard Jordan in a release.

Speaking for Trout Unlimited, I believe that a pragmatic, market-driven approach to conservation that harnesses the creativity and vision of private investors to solve some of our most pressing water problems will increase the scale of TU’s long-standing work with ranchers in the West.

Agriculture accounts for over 70 percent of water use across the West, and much of the region’s irrigation infrastructure is aging and in need of repair. This presents an opportunity to modernize water use and delivery in a way that creates multiple benefits: sustainable agricultural operations, healthy rivers, and steady returns for careful investors.

Ricardo Bayon, a partner and co-founder of Encourage Capital, believes that private capital can work hand in hand with farmers to improve farm and ranch economics while addressing river health and water scarcity.

“Done right, conservation doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, it can be a win-win for farmers, funders, and the environment,” he said in our release.

And Peter Culp, a partner at Culp & Kelly, LLP, notes that “creative investors can work within existing frameworks of water rights and water infrastructure to help meet changing water demands and create real conservation outcomes—while benefiting the West’s important agricultural economies.”

This win-win collaboration grew out of an October 2015 Liquid Assets report by Encourage Capital and Culp, which outlined a series of promising impact investment strategies that could help to finance water resource solutions and generate related environmental and social benefits.

The bottom line: This is a smart investment in our rivers, farms and ranches, and rural communities in the West. Liquid Assets shows that conservation, business and agriculture interests can work together to provide steady returns for the future.

For more information on this exciting project, contact me, Laura Ziemer, lziemer@tu.org, or Ricardo Bayon, rbayon@encouragecapital.com.

Laura Ziemer is senior water counsel for Trout Unlimited.


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