Can private money solve public water problems?

As facilities age and public funding declines, private companies may step in.

 

Private investment in public works isn’t a new idea: In 2014, former President Barack Obama launched an initiative focused on partnerships between public agencies and private companies to boost infrastructure financing and innovation. Now, President Donald Trump is calling for more such collaborations, and even outright privatization, in an attempt to shore up the nation’s aging highways and water systems.

Water infrastructure, for both drinking and irrigation, is especially in need of improvement in the arid West. Amid a wave of aging reservoirs, treatment plants and pipelines, and a Congress unwilling to pony up funding to fix them, the Bureau of Reclamation is considering private investment as a possible solution. While some municipalities in the U.S. have partnered with private companies on water projects, such deals are almost non-existent on the federal level.

Colorado’s Paradox Valley hosts a series of collection wells and an injection well that reduce the salt load in the Dolores River, a tributary to the Colorado.

Critics note that there’s a significant potential downside — private companies are beholden to their bottom line, and their goals may not always line up with the public interest. If the company goes bankrupt, for example, public-private partnerships can end up being costly for the public.

The Bureau of Reclamation recently held a meeting with industry representatives and asked for their feedback on five water infrastructure projects in the West that the agency says might benefit from private involvement or even ownership. The exchange was intended to gauge industry interest in this type of arrangement, and while the Bureau may ask for development bids in the future, it hasn’t yet done so. Here are the five potential projects the agency highlighted:

The project: Kachess Drought Relief Pumping Plant, Yakima River basin, Washington.

Estimated cost: $200 million.

What it would do: The Kachess Reservoir supplies irrigation water to farms. It’s much deeper than its gravity-fed outlet, though, creating a tantalizing untapped water source. A proposed floating pump station would allow water districts to reach almost twice as much water during droughts as they now can. The Bureau of Reclamation anticipates finding a private company to design, build, finance and maintain the pumping plant, while it or local water districts manage operations. 


The project: Eastern New Mexico Rural Water System, east-central New Mexico.

Estimated cost: $527 million.

What it would do: This pipeline project would funnel water from the Ute Reservoir south to a handful of towns and counties that rely on the overdrawn Ogallala Aquifer. The federal government is footing the majority of the bill, but completing the project may take decades. The Bureau of Reclamation hopes to speed things up by finding a private partner to design, build, finance and manage the pipeline system, while the local water authority retains ownership.


The project: Paradox Valley Unit, Colorado River basin, Colorado.

Estimated cost: Unknown.

What it would do: The shallow groundwater beneath western Colorado’s Dolores River is naturally much saltier than seawater. The Paradox Valley Unit facility sucks up that groundwater before it can enter the Dolores, a tributary of the Colorado River, and injects it deep underground for disposal. But the injection well is causing more than 100 small earthquakes each year, prompting the Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate alternatives such as evaporation ponds or desalination. The agency is also considering a partnership that would transfer much of the control of the project — and the financial risks associated with it — to a private company.


The project: Yuma Desalting Plant, Colorado River basin, Arizona.

Estimated cost: Unknown.

What it would do: The Yuma Desalting Plant, located just upstream of the U.S.-Mexico border in southwestern Arizona, removes salt from agricultural runoff before it hits the Colorado. That treated water counts toward the amount the U.S. must send to Mexico, but when it’s not running, untreated runoff is shunted to another location and not counted. If the plant operated more often, the U.S. would be able to use treated water to meet some of its obligation, allowing more water to stay in Lake Mead. The Bureau of Reclamation is studying other treatment options, including building a new facility, retrofitting the old one and finding a private partner to design, finance, build, run and perhaps own the project.


The project: Arkansas Valley Conduit, lower Arkansas River basin, Colorado.

Estimated cost: $400-600 million.

What it would do: This 227-mile pipeline system was authorized in 1962 to provide clean drinking water to towns and rural areas in southeast Colorado, but never built. In 2009, Congress agreed that the federal government would pay for the project, with local funders repaying 35 percent of the cost over 50 years. However, only a fraction of the money needed for the conduit has materialized, leading the Bureau of Reclamation to consider a private partnership.

Emily Benson is an editorial intern at High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...