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 Dried and cracked land in Lake Mead near Las Vegas
Drying Lake Mead National Recreation Area just east of Las Vegas

Urgent Philanthropic Action Is Needed as the Nation’s Water Crisis Claims Lives and Livelihoods

October 25, 2022
Andrea Keller Helsel
Climate mitigation and advocacy are deeply underfunded and there is not enough support for water-conservation efforts

America’s water crisis is pervasive, widespread, and getting worse. Fueled by climate change, it manifests itself in small and large ways — from dried-up family wells to superstorm-driven floods. As the ongoing water emergency in Jackson, Miss., reveals, it hits hardest in low-income communities with the fewest resources to respond effectively.

Philanthropy, however, is barely skimming the surface when it comes to addressing the problem. Climate mitigation and advocacy remain deeply underfunded, including minimal support for water-conservation efforts. Projects that do receive philanthropic funding are primarily focused on reducing the severity of future water crises — an insufficient response when people are already suffering.

Grant makers need to expand their approach to climate change broadly and to the water crisis specifically. They need to prioritize climate-resilience strategies that help communities endure current conditions, adapt to long-term changes, and transform as needed along the way.

Philanthropic-backed projects focused on two major rivers in the western United States — the Colorado River and the Klamath River basin — show how this can be accomplished and why investing in climate resilience is so critical. Historical water agreements for both rivers were predicated on the false premise that 20th-century water-management practices would persist far into the future. Today, climate change is forcing affected communities to completely rethink those practices.

Consider the increasingly dire situation facing the Colorado River, which serves nearly 40 million people in seven states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Years of drought have left the enormous reservoirs fed by the river — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — three-quarters empty. This threatens both the water supply for residents and the hydropower electrical grid that provides power to millions of people.

The situation prompted the federal government to announce this summer that Colorado River basin states would need to drastically reduce their water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or roughly one-fifth of the total water allocated to the states. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, one foot deep.)

Spurring Adaptation

While it isn’t possible to reverse the decades of drought and overuse that have led to the severe challenges facing the Colorado River, funding proven strategies can reduce the impact and help communities adapt. That includes helping farmers adopt water-saving practices and supporting efforts to naturally regulate floodwaters by reconnecting rivers and floodplains that had been separated by artificial dams, levees, or other land-management decisions.

For example, during the last three years, foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation (where Ted works) and the Water Funder Initiative, partnered with environmental nonprofits and corporations to help a group of Indigenous tribes in the region — collectively known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes — conserve 150,000 acre-feet of water, which is enough to serve 300,000 households for a year. The reduction was achieved in part by upgrading outdated irrigation systems to improve efficiency and prevent leakage.

A comparable partnership on Arizona’s Verde River is helping farmers and ranchers in the Colorado River basin switch to more sustainable agricultural-management practices, improve river flows, and increase groundwater levels. These efforts include encouraging farmers to replace crops like corn with less water-intensive alternatives such as barley and removing nonnative invasive plants that use too much water.

A combine harvests golden barley in an Arizona field with dry hills in the background.
The Hauser family harvests barley grown in Arizona's Verde River valley.

Similar efforts are providing relief to the Klamath River basin, which stretches from southern Oregon into northern California and covers an area of more than 12,000 square miles. Chronic drought, pollution, wildfire runoff, and other adverse conditions have curtailed water supplies for wildlife and communities across the region. Federal officials were forced to cut off water to farmers and ranchers in August, creating economic instability for many families. Tribes in the region are struggling to sustain endangered fish, which provide economic, health, and cultural benefits to their communities.

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which took 10 years to negotiate, attempted to balance the water needs of each population, but failed in Congress. Fortunately, local efforts continued and have paved the way for new approaches to climate resilience in the area.

For example, funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to the Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Sustainable Northwest enabled a collaboration between local energy and environmental groups to promote irrigation and energy efficiency, including providing incentives to landowners who reduce their water and energy use. (The Hewlett Foundation, where Andrea works, is a financial supporter of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

On the Shasta and Scott rivers, key tributaries to the Klamath, the nonprofit California Trout is working with farmers and ranchers to remove barriers such as dams that prevent endangered fish from accessing their natural habitats. Philanthropic support is also allowing for the restoration and improvement of fish and wildlife habitat.

In August, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a final Environmental Impact Statement that paves the way for removal of four antiquated dams blocking the Klamath River. This will launch the largest river-restoration project in history and create an unprecedented opportunity to build new climate-resilient approaches for maintaining one of the world’s most dynamic watersheds.

As funding allocations and policy solutions are developed, grant makers need to help ensure that sovereign tribal governments are at the negotiating table alongside state and federal officials. Indigenous households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing. Thirty percent of families on the Navajo Nation live without running water.

Influencing Policy

But these tribal communities are often left out of water-policy discussions. That’s why the Walton Family Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation support the Tribal Nations Conservation Pledge and Funding Collaborative, which provides tribes with resources to address their land- and water-management needs.

Farmers, ranchers, and other rural communities must also be equally represented alongside cities. For example, the Water Solutions Fund at the Water Foundation aims to ensure that federal funding provided by the bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act benefits rural, urban, and tribal communities, particularly those that were historically left out of public investments in water and agriculture. Initial grants from this fund are supporting more efficient farm-irrigation systems in the Colorado River basin, forest- and watershed-restoration projects across the country, and community climate-resilience programs.

One thing we’ve learned over the course of these projects is that water has the power to build common ground and erase old battle lines that too easily pit cities against rural areas and fishing communities against agricultural farms. Philanthropy can help surmount this kind of divisiveness by investing in mediation and coalition-building efforts that create trust and encourage collaboration.

Climate change is here to stay, but so are the nature-based, community-led solutions that will help our nation manage its resources and protect the most vulnerable communities.

This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Oct. 13, 2022.

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