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Water Solutions That Meet the Needs of People and Nature

Dec 9, 2020

California's water system supports nearly 40 million people, the world's fifth largest economy, diverse natural ecosystems, and one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Yet this critical system is under significant stress: Californians face increased water scarcity, declining water quality, greater flood risk, and the deteriorating health of ecosystems.

Promising solutions exist, and there are many examples of innovation and collaboration to address the state's water challenges. However, the speed and scale of change are often limited by a lack of cohesion in practices, fragmented institutions, complex technical challenges, under-resourced nonprofits, and the lack of political will. In this context, between 2009 and 2020, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation awarded more than $130 million in program funds to support California's transition to a more sustainable water future.

Grants were orchestrated within three interconnected strategies: building knowledge to improve decisions, pursuing integrated solutions to complex challenges, and engaging more funders. These strategies spurred progress on interrelated goals involving groundwater management, flood protection, stormwater and urban resilience, drinking water quality, and open data. Foundation grants also helped bring forward billions of dollars in new public funding as well as more than $400 million in new philanthropic capital.

Milestones achieved are transforming how California manages water. This impact was the product of difficult, dedicated effort by many individuals, organizations, and coalitions committed to change. Their progress was aided by public attention and desire for solutions emanating from an historic, extreme drought. Their work was supported by flexible risk capital and capacity-building outlays for the water field provided by philanthropy.

This brief further describes the primary strategies, outcomes, and takeaways from the Foundation's water program. While drawn from one grantmaker's experience in California, this content can have broad relevance to practitioners, policymakers, and funders everywhere who seek a secure water future for people and nature.