by Sergio Tovar
Master’s Projects are a fundamental component of professional students’ education at the Nicholas School.
MPs give Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry candidates a practical way to showcase what they’ve learned through the program.
Some projects offer students the opportunity to work with real-life clients and stakeholders while getting professional experience and building a network before entering the workforce.
That was the case for 2017 MEM graduates Catherine Bowler, Jennifer Brennan and Samantha Kuzma, who worked with an irrigation district to investigate the best solutions for financing a water pumping plant to offer the area drought relief.
Brennan, now a research associate at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, says this kind of endeavor complemented the education she received at Duke.
“That’s a real strength of the Nicholas School,” she says. “You have the opportunity to receive an interdisciplinary education. It was also nice to have a project that brought together financial analysis as well as ecologic, hydrologic and other components.”
Martin Doyle, professor of river systems science and policy connected the students to the Roza Irrigation District, located in an affluent agricultural hub in the Yakima Basin of central Washington.
Doyle, who is program chair for the school’s water resource management concentration, discovered the project during a year-long fellowship at the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Natural Resource Investment Center. Kuzma coincidentally spent a summer concurrently at the DOI as she completed a Sussman Fellowship, so she became familiar with the venture.
Doyle thought the project had all the pieces for a good MP and pitched the idea to the group, knowing they had the skills to handle the task.
“The Nicholas School has been building an underground program in environmental finance,” says Doyle, who teaches a water and infrastructure finance class that the trio had taken. “Really, it’s one of the only classes like it in water programs around the United States. They could actually contribute as much as any other consultant or regulatory agency.”
Loss of snowpack in the Cascade Range—where the Yakima Basin is located—has resulted in water shortages that threaten the basin’s $3 billion agricultural economy. The project assessed the economic and enviromental impacts of the proposed pumping plant, which is intended to provide supplemental flows for the irrigation district during drought.
“There’s a lot at stake,” says Kuzma.
It really forced us to consider different stakeholders that use water. Really putting ourselves in the shoes of agriculture and thinking about their needs—how they use water, how they see water—and also expanding
to other stakeholders in the basin like the ecological ones and tribal interests, federal interests.”
The students focused on the hydrology of the basin to understand water supply, looked at revenue of crops to understand water demand, and more. Their analyses also revealed potential benefits of the project to supply water for fish populations and habitat in the basin.
“Part of what makes this project so unique is the ecological benefits associated with the pumping plant,” Bowler says. “In addition to providing water to farmers in Roza during time of drought, that same water could serve ecological purposes in an upstream irrigation district by supplementing instream flows and important tributaries that contain priority species.”
The group developed four finance strategies to pay for the pumping station ranging from traditional bonds to alternative finance options like environmental impact bonds.
They found that a layered capital approach where the irrigation district attempts to attract as much capital from environmental impact investors and other funding sources while financing the rest of the project through a municipal bond could save the district up to 40 percent in project costs.
“There’s a lot of opportunity these days, a lot more momentum behind impact investment and that sort of thing,” Brennan says. “So they’re trying to take advantage of that and leverage those benefits for the district as well as other basin stakeholders.”
Running through the actual numbers on financing a large infrastructure project was new for the group, which Doyle says made the project even more educational.
“Doing analysis with real data is great, but the biggest learning curve you get with a real client is you get to work with questions that occur in the real world, not questions that occur in academia,” he says. “And those are very different questions.”
Doyle adds that working with time scale and data limitations also teaches students an important lesson.
“Generating a perfect, academic answer would take three to five years, but that’s an irrelevant answer in a project like this, so the answer that can be generated in three to five months actually has the chance to be put to use,” he says.
“In class, you have the perfect data to analyze, but in the real world clearly you don’t—you get whatever snippets of data that may actually exist.”
Doyle says there are also advantages in helping a client navigate through this sort of project.
“Clients don’t necessarily know what they want and part of being a consultant is helping them understand what questions they actually need answered,” he says.
Working on a project that integrated different disciplines also taught the group many other important lessons that they’ll be able to use for the rest of their careers.
“I’ve gained this invaluable project management experience,” says Bowler, who now serves as water policy coordinator for U.S. government relations at The Nature Conservancy. “I think going forward this type of infrastructure project is going to become increasingly necessary as our water resources are challenged, especially out west.”
Kuzma says the experience doing data analysis for the Master’s Project has come in handy at her job as an analyst for the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C.
“It was a great foundation to build upon,” she adds. “I’m using that every day.”
Kuzma says that she also learned to dig into technical aspects and how to translate complicated ideas to a non-technical audience.
“It was pretty invaluable experience to learn how to talk about detailed hydrology to someone who doesn’t know anything about water,” she says. “That was a really big gain from working on this project.”
Doyle says Roza Irrigation District officials were happy with the results—which were compiled into a 79-page report and were presented at the Spring Master’s Project Symposium in April—and discovered some useful facts that will prove valuable as the project moves forward.
“How much of what we did will show up on the final project is almost irrelevant,” says Doyle. “We were part of keeping the momentum going and affecting the overall thinking of the project. That’s about as cool as it gets for them as students as well as for me as a professor.”
Sergio Tovar is the Nicholas School’s social media specialist.