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Making Progress Toward Healthier Rivers and Oceans

December 30, 2020
Our rivers and oceans face significant challenges. The solutions are emerging from the communities most at risk from these threats.

Rivers and oceans are some of the largest and most precious resources available to both people and nature. When natural assets are so big and so endangered, it’s sometimes hard to see the progress toward securing their long-term health.

But over the past five years, there has been tangible change – real action to protect our most precious water resources.

These achievements happened because of the innovation, determination and cooperation among people in the communities most at risk from the threats. Each step forward provides more evidence that people are eager for action – and that protecting water and the environment is an issue that brings people together.

A recent poll, for example, found that 84% of Americans believe we can and should be doing more to protect water as part of efforts to address climate change. Following a year that brought too much hardship and division, that level of unity deepens our commitment to help build on the gains already made.

We support solutions that bring environmental and economic benefit to communities. The hard work of grantees and landowners across the Delta region of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana over the past five years led to the restoration of more than 60,000 acres of frequently flooded agricultural land and the planting of 18 million trees. The voluntary transition of marginal agricultural land back to forest has immediate benefits for water quality, reducing nutrient pollution and long-term benefits for the fish and wildlife in and along the Mississippi River.

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Communities are conserving and saving water so people and nature can thrive together. Foundation grantees, community leaders, tribal nations, academics, business leaders and others united to help secure the largest voluntary water conservation agreement in global history to protect the Colorado River Basin. Forty million people rely on the river for drinking water every day, and this will help ensure there is enough water to support people and the economy. Since 2015, ranchers, conservationists and local communities worked to improve riparian health on 236 miles of river in the Colorado River Basin.

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Sustainable solutions for industry and the environment are improving the health of oceans and fisheries that feed the world. Only a decade ago, most commercially important fisheries suffered from overfishing. That practice is bad for fish, bad for oceans and bad for people who rely on seafood for their livelihoods and dinners. Today, 90% of North American retailers are committed to sourcing sustainable seafood, and fishing communities are adopting better practices to meet growing consumer demand while also helping fish populations recover. Around the world, there is still significant work to be done – but there is also real progress. Thirty-five percent of global seafood is rated, certified or in a fisheries improvement project, up from 5% in 2009.

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Farmers throughout the U.S. Midwest are expanding conservation practices that improve soil health and water quality in the Mississippi River Basin. More than 50,000 farmers took steps to improve conservation practices, leading to the planting of more than 4 million acres of cover crops in the Mississippi River Basin from 2015 to 2018. That’s a 285% increase over three years and a 400% increase for the nine years, from 2009 to 2018.

Coastal communities in Louisiana are punching above their weight. Ten years ago, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana was reeling from the aftermath of a devastating oil spill. Individuals and organizations on the ground and across the nation helped leverage $100 million in grants for $8 billion of public funds to support the largest-funded restoration effort in the world. There are practical and pragmatic reasons to be optimistic about coastal Louisiana's future and that this moment is ripe for meaningful work.

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Looking to the future, we are clear-eyed about the scale of the challenges and threats facing water right now. Each day brings fresh headlines about mega-storms, wildfires, droughts and floods. This is not easy work.

It’s OK not to have all the answers. That’s why we work with people and communities closest to the challenges we tackle – because they have the best insight into solutions. It’s also why we support innovation and are committed to learning from what works – and what doesn’t.

Despite the hardships of 2020, there is enough hope and resilience to match the scale of the challenges before us. Together, we have moved closer toward achieving some of the largest conservation goals in the world, and we are determined to build on that momentum for the environment, for our children and for the future.