The Key Funders Stepping Up to Protect Water Supplies

Protecting the country’s freshwater supply is a huge environmental issue with increasing urgency, but it’s just getting started as a philanthropic cause. Here’s a crash course in the major players.

Funding related to the lakes, rivers, groundwater, and canals that provide water for cities and agriculture is gaining serious momentum in recent years, although still on the lower end of environmental priorities. It’s a complicated issue, and one that is approached from many different angles. Water systems issues involve public health, ecosystems, urban development, equity, and climate. The threats, worsened by climate change, are equally varied. 

Related: "Extremes Are Becoming the Norm." Why Water is the Next Big Issue For Philanthropy

That makes it a challenging issue when it comes to grasping the field, and with connecting funders both to each other and to the right grantees. But there are some important members of the philanthropic community who are taking this topic head on, as well as emerging collaboratives working to amplify national efforts. Here’s a who’s who. 

The Water Funder Initiative 

WFI started about a year and a half ago to coordinate the efforts of funders working on sustainable water systems, and to offer a strategic approach for those looking to get involved. It was started by the Walton Family Foundation and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and now consists of eight lead funders, including Pisces Foundation, Packard, Rockefeller, Hewlett, and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. The WFI released its first publication in March, a blueprint for philanthropy that would be a good starting point for interested funders, but also grantees looking to get a sense of what’s happening in the field. At least for now, the initiative is focused on the West.

The Big Green Funders 

Walton Family Foundation is the country’s largest water funder, with its entire environment program divided between oceans, freshwater, and the Gulf Coast. In 2014, WFF gave $35 million to freshwater conservation, with an emphasis on rivers, both the Colorado and the Mississippi. While safe and healthy water quality is a priority, Walton gives to a lot of conservation efforts to restore river flows and land surrounding rivers. Large grantees include EDF, Trout Unlimited, and the Western Conservation Foundation. 

Related: What's It Like for Environmental Groups Working with the Walton Family Foundation?

David & Lucile Packard Foundation, like most of the giant environmental foundations out there these days, is primarily concerned with marine protection. But that hasn’t stopped the massive funder from getting involved in California’s water issues. Packard was one of the founding supporters of the California Water Foundation. Similarly, Hewlett Foundation, which is best known in environmental circles for its groundbreaking climate and energy funding, has signed on as a leading partner in the Water Funder Initiative. And, finally, Rockefeller Foundation is the other key participant in the WFI, likely motivated by its commitment to resilience and energy.

S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation

Bechtel is the most prominent water funder in California, and one of the largest working on the issue in the country overall, for that matter. One of the founding partners of both the Water Funder Initiative, and the Water Foundation (formerly the California Water Foundation), Bechtel has become a leader in drumming up support for the subject. The foundation is also very closely tied to California, and played a role in the state’s crafting historic groundwater reforms. One of its major goals now is moving forward “integrated water management” in the state. Oh, one more thing—Bechtel is spending down by 2020.

Related: Another Billionaire's Foundation Is Spending Down, With a Big Focus on the Environment 

Pisces Foundation 

Pisces is relatively new to the scene, at least in its current incarnation. The philanthropy of Bob and Randi Fisher, whose wealth comes from the Gap clothing company, Pisces has gone from self-directed giving to an emerging national environmental funder. The Fishers have been highly supportive of NRDC and its water program, and its former director David Beckman is now Pisces executive director. Pisces has quickly become a leader and proponent of sustainable water systems, including integrated water management, which refers to breaking down the silos that fragment how we deal with water quality and supply. Pisces had another notable pickup when it signed on former EPA policymaker Nancy Stoner to head its water program. 

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The Water Foundation

This outfit is an offshoot of the Resources Legacy Fund, and it originated as the California Water Foundation with funding from Pisces, Packard, and Bechtel. It was instrumental in the state’s first groundwater management rules and backed a water bond measure, It's now supporting policy and field work, as well as water innovations.

Surdna Foundation

New York-based Surdna has planted a stake in city infrastructure as the focus of its sustainability program. The funder has a strong justice focus and is just as interested in making cities equitable and democratic as it is in making them green. For Surdna, the two go hand-in-hand. Water is one of four focuses in its sustainability program. Like many urban water funders, the foundation is interested in stormwater management and green infrastructure—using designed features like gardens and swales to capture and retain rainfall instead of flushing it away in old pipes. 

Related: For Surdna, Infrastructure is Where Justice and Sustainability Cross Paths

Park Foundation

Another New York funder, Park made a name for itself as a modest family foundation that went to bat against fracking. The core of its environment program is protecting drinking water in the United States as a public right. They fund work to reduce bottled water consumption, corporate responsibility campaigns, policy work, and investigative media on freshwater. Park gives nationally, but with some preference for New York state and North Carolina. 

Related: The Family Foundation That’s Become a Hero for Fracking Opponents

Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic Regional Funders 

It makes sense that regional funders in the Midwest have been focusing on freshwater for a long time, given the region’s profound connection to its rivers and the Great Lakes. Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is one of the biggest funders in this part of the country, and happens to be based in the location of the worst American water crisis in recent history, Flint, Michigan. Most of Mott’s environmental funding goes toward freshwater in the Great Lakes region. 

Another Michigan-based funder, Kresge Foundation is focused heavily on cities and poverty, and its environmental program reflects this by giving to resilience and sustainability. Kresge’s water program is unique in that it not only primarily looks at cities, its water resources program is also closely connected to climate. The foundation gives toward work in wastewater, stormwater, water supply management, especially related to how they impact vulnerable populations. 

Another notable regional player in freshwater, working in the Mid-Atlantic, is the William Penn Foundation. Penn is devoted to protecting the Delaware River watershed, which serves 15 million people in multiple states in the region. Penn has also been a big supporter of green infrastructure in Philadelphia. 

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Community and Local Foundations

Finally, community foundations have a huge presence in freshwater issues. In fact, most urban water quality funding across the country is happening at the local level, with funders recognizing it as a problem of community health, sustainability, and of meeting federal requirements. One issue that’s ripe for philanthropy is helping older industrial cities cope with their outdated combined sewer systems, which merge sewage and urban runoff, overflowing into nearby bodies of water during storms.  

For example, the Greater New Orleans Foundation has an urban water program that supports stormwater management and green infrastructure. The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo is backing some interesting water quality work. But this stuff is really going on all over the place, prompting the creation of the Stormwater Funders’ Group to coordinate efforts.

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This is just a sampling of a field that we expect to significantly expand in coming years. We'll be watching this arena closely, and by all means, let us know in the comments any important freshwater and urban water quality funders we've overlooked.