One Funder That Wants to Improve How U.S. Cities Manage Water

As the San Francisco-based Pisces Foundation starts to stretch its legs and ramp up national grantmaking, one funding priority is modernizing the way we manage water resources. The foundation is backing work in a mix of cities as varied as Los Angeles and New Orleans, to help them lead the way.

The Pisces Foundation is the philanthropy of Gap clothing company heir Bob Fisher and wife Randi, who are currently expanding their formerly self-directed giving to a more strategic approach and a national focus. One of Pisces’ most interesting programs works to establish more holistic, sustainable water systems, making grants this year in a handful of cities that have a wide range of geographies and water resource challenges.  

A medium-sized funder also giving to climate change and environmental education, Pisces is carving out a unique niche in the field of integrated water management, which seeks a bigger-picture approach to water issues, simultaneously taking into account quantity and quality.

Related: Inside the Pisces Foundation: A New Environmental Grantmaker Emerges

“Water policy in the U.S. is a classic example of silo-ization,” says David Beckman, executive director, who sits on the board with the Fishers and worked with them to build the foundation. “You basically have taken the issue and chopped it up so narrowly that it’s very difficult to see the whole thing, and very difficult to actually achieve the goals.”  

For all the good achieved by elaborate water regulations that originated back in the 1960s, in this era of climate change and population growth, we need to take a fresh look at how we manage these resources, says Beckman, who formerly helmed the national water program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. We typically approach drinking water supply separately from clean rivers and beaches, for example, but the two are closely related. 

“If you create a system that looks at the whole thing together, you can get much better outcomes.”  

One example is green infrastructure. To tackle urban runoff pollution, in which stormwater whisks all kinds of nasty city gunk through gutters and pipes out to bodies of water, cities can build features like strategically designed parks that absorb and filter water. This simultaneously recharges groundwater supplies and curbs pollution, while establishing nice green space in urban centers.

Pisces this year made planning grants to five national environmental groups to identify cities in prime positions to implement such techniques. They selected six urban watersheds, each holding their own opportunities for advancing better water management.

Tucson, Arizona, for example, is working to keep its residents’ thirsts quenched in triple-digit heat, while leaving enough water to maintain its Sonoran Desert ecosystem.  

Detroit, on the other hand, is a post-industrial city with an opportunity to combine green infrastructure projects with workforce development. 

Funding in New Orleans seeks to make the city a model for other coastal locations that will need to become more resilient in the face of climate change. 

The Fishers have always been interested in the environment and water issues, with an emphasis on California (they still fund water resources in Los Angeles), but this year marks a notable increase in philanthropy, having staffed up and fine-tuned priorities. The funder is ramping up overall grantmaking, going from $9 million in 2014 to an anticipated $17 million in 2016.

Pisces is planning to make combined grants in these priority places of about $1 million by the end of this year, hoping progress takes root and begins to offer examples for other cities over time.