Droughts are one of California’s recurring disasters. They happen much more slowly than earthquakes, fires, or mudslides, but can be hugely costly in human, environmental, and economic terms.
Droughts in this state are getting worse; the years 2012 to 2016 were California’s driest and hottest on record. A report from the Public Policy Institute of California released in June 2017 illuminates how droughts contribute to significant water management challenges:
- In some rural areas – particularly in the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada – small communities without diverse water sources have faced shortages, and more than 2,000 domestic wells ran dry.
- Land fallowing and higher costs for water and feed led to nearly $2 billion in farm sector losses, along with some 10,000 seasonal, part-time, and full-time farm jobs.
- Low flows and high water temperatures threatened California’s native fish. As many as 18 species – including most salmon and steelhead runs – were at risk of extinction if the drought continued.
The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation works to improve statewide water policy. We also recognize that the effects of policy – and of drought – are felt differently across California’s distinct regions. In the midst of the recent drought we wanted to understand local and regional impacts, so we talked with several community foundation colleagues, asking: How is your region responding to the drought? How is water affecting other local or regional issues that you care about?
Why community foundations? Community foundations can be go-to organizations with the credibility and capability to tackle issues that matter in their home geographies. Virtually all engage donors and make grants supporting crucial nonprofit organizations and causes. Many go well beyond these core functions to create greater impact – for example, convening diverse stakeholders to address complex challenges, sponsoring research to inform more effective policy and practice, and providing loans or other investments to help pilot, scale, and sustain innovations. They have the pulse of their communities.
Those conversations led to the Community Foundation Water Initiative, launched in 2015, to support participants as they work individually and collectively to advance sustainable water management in California regions.
The Community Foundation Water Initiative partners are the California Community Foundation (Los Angeles), the Central Valley Community Foundation, The San Diego Foundation, The San Francisco Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
Each partner approaches water through its own lens; while some conduct programs that focus on climate, others address water issues as part of their interest in equity, agriculture, land use, or housing. All recognize the impact water has on their respective communities. Group members connect regularly to share progress and lessons learned from their individual efforts, examine and better understand challenges that are relevant to each of their regions, and explore ways to connect local and regional efforts for broader statewide impact.
In 2017, these partners engaged Smart Growth California to facilitate their efforts to identify and implement high value collective activity. Smart Growth California was selected for its strong track record serving funders who want to help build environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and economically prosperous regions and communities in California.
Potential topics for shared investment include advancing integrated water and land use planning at the regional level, investing in regional leadership and structures that enhance water management across multiple communities, addressing equity in water policy, and conducting communication campaigns that increase awareness of water challenges and solutions.
The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation is committed to supporting California’s transition to a sustainable water system that meets the needs of people and nature. Joining with community foundations as savvy, place-based agents of change is a means to amplify our work, connect to new constituencies, and strengthen the networks needed at all levels – local, regional, and statewide – to achieve sustainable solutions. We are grateful for the commitment and abilities each of our community foundation partners brings to this effort.
Many people across all sectors are working with urgency to ensure that California’s regions are more resilient in the face of drought and other water challenges. Community foundations can help the state achieve this goal sooner rather than later.
We invite you to direct any questions about the Community Foundation Water Initiative to our community foundation colleagues, or contact Ron Milam, Interim Director of Smart Growth California.
Marselle Alexander-Ozinskas is a program officer at the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Joya Banerjee is a senior program officer at the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.