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Aligning Investments in Water Quality

June 01, 2014

Headshot_nathan_boonOne of the most exciting aspects of philanthropy is the prospect of effecting systematic change, yet many of us in the sector often struggle with the scale of the systems we're trying to influence. Certainly this is true in environmental philanthropy, where a single and coherent environmental system like a watershed (e.g., river basin) can encompass an enormous geography and a host of complex issues. Where my colleagues and I sit in the Delaware River watershed, for example, we're dealing with 216 major tributaries and an area of more than 13,500 square miles that includes four states, 838 municipalities, and a total population of nearly 8 million people. For watersheds and other large ecosystems, even the most generous grantmaking budget will be dwarfed by the enormity of what's needed, raising important questions for philanthropic investors. How can we be more effective in deploying scarce resources? How do we assess whether we're making a difference? Where do we choose to invest, and how do we support work in a way that meaningfully sets the stage for replication and greater impact?

At the William Penn Foundation, we're responding to these tough questions by implementing a new approach to a decades-long legacy of environmental grantmaking. With the support of our board and strong partners in the research and nonprofit communities, we are focusing our geographic footprint by prioritizing select ecosystems, aligning the work of capable nonprofit organizations within those ecosystems, targeting specific environmental stressors, and continually measuring progress. All to restore and protect the quality and availability of our water resources — resources with a history of unchecked pollution and abuse.

We have come a long way since the mid-1880s, when fouled water, factory waste, and mining by-products were drained into our waters at alarming rates. In the first half of the twentieth century, many bodies of water — including the Delaware Estuary, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and Long Island Sound — were renowned for their dead zones, stretches of polluted water where virtually nothing could survive. The extent of the damage eventually led to multi-sector partnerships to address the problem, including the first interstate watershed commission in 1936, as well as a succession of state and federal legislation to reduce point-source pollution, culminating in the Clean Water Act of 1972 and amendments to the act in 1977 and 1987. Today, as a result, we have far fewer dead zones in our lakes, rivers and estuaries, and polluters are held to a much higher standard when it comes to releasing waste into local waterways.

But it is not enough.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, new contaminants have emerged to threaten environmental and public health, even as major sources of industrial pollution have been outsourced to foreign shores. With the relative decline in American manufacturing and an ever-increasing U.S. population, we are seeing new threats from the industrialization of agriculture, suburban sprawl, and our appetite for fossil fuels. Regulators are challenged to address sources of pollution that are widely distributed across the landscape and cannot be traced back to a single end-of-pipe discharge point.

With the proliferation of these distributed, or "non-point," pollution sources — including forest clearing for new housing developments and energy infrastructure, contaminated stormwater runoff, and agricultural runoff from chemically treated fields — improvements in important measures of water quality such as dissolved oxygen have stagnated or been reversed. What's more, while analytical models reveal that non-point source pollution is the dominant source of environmental contaminants such as nutrient pollution in nearly all major U.S. river systems, less than 1 percent of these sources are subject to regulation.

We are talking about a problem, and an opportunity, that environmental philanthropy cannot ignore.

The magnitude and complexity of the non-point-source problem requires all stakeholders to think across boundaries and implement a range of strategies to effect measurable change on a meaningful scale. Where, for example, traditional restoration work focuses on rebuilding and replanting eroded stream banks, additional investments in better infiltration practices for suburban back yards could slow the flow coming into streams and prevent erosion to begin with; where one partner is committed to protecting wildlife and another is focused on climate change adaptation, efforts to capitalize on shared priorities in floodplains that contain critical wetland habitat could benefit both. Stakeholders should press for new protections and stringent enforcement of existing regulations while exploring ways to harness markets to create effective, low-cost solutions that complement the government's role in ensuring water quality. For these and other interventions, data must be collected, shared, and put to work to inform the public, policy, and the professional practice of watershed conservation.

Focused investment in priority ecosystems should also encompass new approaches and technologies with respect to the restoration of degraded landscapes and the protection of pristine areas. Coupled with integrated monitoring to track and evaluate our progress and proactive communications, this work can help build a body of evidence that leads to more effective conservation. If we align the work of all stakeholders — watershed groups, land trusts, funders, university hydrologists, ecologists, land-use planners, water utilities, regulatory agencies — every targeted investment will amplify and accelerate our collective impact.

This model is being put to the test in the Delaware River watershed, where the William Penn Foundation recently brought together more than fifty groups from across Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware to prioritize improving water quality. Our approach involves working in eight strategically targeted places, developing shared plans that align conservation work within those places, and measuring the impact of this work on water quality. In order to make measurable headway on restoring and protecting water quality in the watershed over the next three years, the plans call for a total investment of $230 million. The William Penn Foundation already has invested $35 million toward this work, and the practitioners, scientists, and nonprofits leading the effort will continue to seek out additional partners and investment. Our goal is not only to improve water quality within the selected priority areas, but to share and apply the results and lessons learned from this approach across the Delaware Basin and beyond.

Nathan Boon is a program officer with the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation, which supports data-driven approaches to protecting and restoring the Delaware River watershed. He previously worked with the nonprofit organization Breaking Ground in Cameroon, where he was engaged in water quality analysis and health impact assessments.

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