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

When the children of a city with a 40 percent poverty rate were poisoned by their own public water supply, it shook a lot of Americans’ assumptions that clean, safe water will come out of our taps every time we turn them on.

Flint is a unique circumstance in a lot of ways, but it signals a slow-burning problem across the United States—our water systems face profound threats from climate change, population growth, wasteful use, and degrading urban infrastructure. Drought in the West, the other sea change water crisis, has been demonstrating for years now that we need more sustainable systems.

Well-intentioned donors will always rush to disasters as they did in the case of Flint, giving to treat the sick and ship in truckloads of bottled water for residents. But philanthropy is still finding its role in the broader issue of sustainable water systems. It hasn’t yet stepped up the same way it has for environmental issues like marine conservation, land protection, or more recently, climate change. Now, that’s beginning to change.

While freshwater giving still lags, more philanthropists are paying attention, and a set of key funders and some nationwide collaborative efforts have emerged in the past few years to move water systems from a niche issue into a major philanthropic effort that addresses systemic problems. 

According to the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s most recent data, freshwater ranked fifth among its members’ primary issue areas, about 8 percent of total giving. But it’s also seen a significant increase since 2010, from $56 million to $109 million in 2013.

“It’s something that we’re going to see increasing for years to come,” EGA Executive Director Rachel Leon told us earlier this year, when the latest trends report came out. “With aging infrastructure, and the challenges ahead of us on water, we’re going to continue to see that one rise.” 

What is Water Philanthropy?

One of the big factors preventing more funders from getting involved in this issue area is the ambiguity in the answer to this question, and the many causes and funding angles associated with it. But we’re talking about inland water systems that include lakes, rivers, groundwater and canals, and how they support both natural ecosystems and human use. 

The problems run deep and wide: 

  • Climate change threatens snowpack and higher temperatures worsen drought
  • Population growth, mismanagement and waste mean existing supplies are over-allocated
  • Pollution from industry, agriculture and cities threatens quality
  • Extreme weather events cause flooding and overflow pollution
  • Infrastructure is outdated and degrading 

All of this adversely impacts natural ecosystems. That’s a lot, and it attracts funders concerned with urban development, justice and equity, biodiversity, public health, and climate change. The systems involved are also daunting, a complex assortment of government agencies and laws.

“Funders felt that it was too complicated an issue, and not clear what the pathways toward impact were,” says Susan Bell, managing director of the Water Funder Initiative, which set out about 15 months ago to figure out why the issue wasn’t attracting more funds. “The legal and political issues around water are kind of notorious. [It’s] a very local issue, so difficult to see how philanthropy could make a difference at scale.”

Bell, working with the Walton Family Foundation and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, began consulting with more than 150 experts on the subject to figure out the impediments to funders, and how and where they could collaboratively direct more funds in the future. 

As the numbers above demonstrate, there is definitely substantial and growing interest among funders, especially among local players, but there hasn’t been the kind of coordinated push required for national impact, according to Bell and partners. Indeed, there are only a handful of national funders that pursue freshwater as a main issue. 

But even that is difficult to gauge, and WFI has actually struggled to develop hard data on who’s giving how much and to what, because the work is all over the place. It’s hard to know how to categorize, much less connect, work on huge river basin ecosystems with efforts to plant stormwater-retaining gardens.

Go West, Young Initiative

In WFI’s first publication, “Toward Water Sustainability: A Blueprint for Philanthropy,” the team pooled the work into four sectors: urban, agriculture, environment, and energy. The blueprint set up a strategy for philanthropy, including creating water markets that realign financial incentives; developing new funding sources and political will to fix infrastructure; improving governance that can be fragmented or stodgy; and improving our use of data and innovation when it comes to water.

The initiative has rounded up eight lead funders, including Pisces, Hewlett and Rockefeller. Bell says since WFI formed, they’ve ramped up giving among key funders by around $20 million above and beyond existing commitments, and the initiative is looking to recruit more foundations.

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While Bell points out that work is needed nationwide, the WFI chose initially to focus on the West for a set of reasons, including the large population at risk and the historic shortages facing the region. California has suffered severe, short-term drought in recent years, but there are longer-term water shortages that threaten the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for water. The river is already severely over-allocated, as water rights were drawn up based on an overestimation of annual flow, and scientists are bracing for even drier years ahead.

“With climate change factors, people are realizing this is a bit of a new normal. That this isn’t perhaps a one-off, and we’re likely to see more of this to come,” Bell says. “The way we manage water isn’t sustainable… We’re not going to have enough over time and we’re not going to have enough in the right places.”

Troubles in the West have prompted some California foundations to emerge as leaders on the issue. Within the past 10 years, Bechtel has been working to build up the water field in the state. With Packard and Pisces, they launched the California Water Foundation (now just the Water Foundation), which played a key role in developing groundwater reforms that many believed would never happen.

Pisces has also become a national leader in freshwater issues, joining Bechtel in the push for integrated water management, or making water supply and quality management more coherent and less fragmented. 

“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,” said David Beckman, Pisces executive director, when we interviewed him in November about their water program. 

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

Water rights and law are notoriously cryptic and archaic, and funders want to improve the way we approach the issue. As Bell of WFI puts it, “The way in which we’ve governed water in this country has been kind of crazy.”

Storms Brewing Back East

While WFI is initially focusing on the West, where issues manifest around scarcity and reliability, Eastern states struggle with their own soup of problems, more often concerning water quality, which its funders are learning how to address. A combination of urban, industrial, and agricultural pollution, and stormwater overflows combine to threaten freshwater supplies. 

The problems are exacerbated by climate change, but also by outdated and degrading infrastructure in the nation’s older cities. One estimate pegged the national cost of needed restoration and expansion of water infrastructure at $1 trillion, while the EPA has estimated water infrastructure rehab costs at $650 billion.

Flint is a worst-case scenario of what can go wrong, as a disastrous switch to Lake Huron as a water source led to corrosive water leaching lead from old pipes and into household taps. But like California’s drought, Flint isn’t a standalone issue. In one example, an enormous algae bloom in Lake Erie, fueled by agricultural fertilizer and urban runoff, left Toledo water undrinkable. In another, 300,000 people in Charlestown, West Virginia were told in 2014 to not use their tap water after a large-scale chemical spill on a nearby river. 

Fortunately, some big regional philanthropies have been working on these water quality issues, with large funders like Charles Stewart Mott Foundation supporting freshwater systems in the Midwest. William Penn Foundation has been a major funder of work in the Delaware River watershed serving the Mid-Atlantic. 

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

While there are some national funders getting involved, most are at the local level, with funders seeing water quality as a community issue, says Diane Schrauth, consultant and former William Penn Foundation program officer who oversees the Stormwater Funders’ Group. The group started about four years ago within the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities to coordinate such efforts.

Schrauth says the name is something of a misnomer, because these days they deal with urban water issues more broadly. But one of the big motivators was a common stormwater problem facing cities with combined sewer systems.

Hundreds of American communities are served by out-of-date combined sewer systems, in which both surface runoff and sewage travel in the same pipes to a treatment plant. But during storms, the combination is too much for the plant to handle, and the whole mess spills out, by design, into nearby bodies of water. 

An increasingly popular remedy for combined sewer overflows and other urban water problems is green infrastructure, which instead works to retain rainwater with designed features like swales, cisterns, and green spaces. Funders like Penn, Pisces, Surdna, and JPB foundations have embraced the practice as more cities turn to it to solve their water woes.

Finding Philanthropy’s Role

This is just an overview of some of the problems facing communities and the funders who want to solve them. But it paints a picture of a complex and expensive problem that is national in scope, but simultaneously highly local. So where exactly do foundations fit in?

It’s not an easy question to answer, and there’s always a danger of foundations swooping into a community during crisis and then swooping out, stepping on toes or leaving no systemic improvements in the aftermath. The challenge is to turn those crisis points into motivation for broader work, says Susan Bell of WFI.

Funders also have concerns about going too far. Following the Flint crisis, Ridgway White, president of C.S. Mott, wrote an opinion piece that described what the foundation did to aid Flint residents, but also cautioned about the limits of philanthropy as Mott sees them. “Government fault demands a government fix,” he wrote, adding that government must be responsible for infrastructure, and that upgrades needed are beyond what philanthropy could even afford. WFI similarly recommends that “philanthropy should not pay for the cost of water management itself,” but it should ensure that a combination of private and public funding streams is strong. 

Bell says one of the promising things about water is that there are some levers to pull that we know will work. She points out the philanthropic work in California’s groundwater reform, and in the historic binational agreement to restore pulse flow in the Colorado River Delta as examples. Foundation support for the embrace of green infrastructure in Philadelphia is another success story that comes to mind.

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David Beckman of the Pisces Foundation has a similar take on the ability to hit certain strategic pressure points, but also emphasizes that we need a larger paradigm shift in terms of how we think about water in this country. 

Aside from our fragmented management approach, water is just not something people think about, or candidates campaign on, for example. The faucet opens, and we take for granted that the water will pour out. That’s something philanthropy could work on. 

“Water is one of the most threatened assets we have in the U.S.,” Beckman says. “Water is also one of the most undervalued assets we have in the U.S.”

RelatedThe Key Funders Stepping Up to Protect Water Supplies

See more articles by Tate Williams.