Local Scientists Work on Water Supplies Around the World

By Kari Vigerstol, Global Water Funds Director of Conservation

Seattle had the foresight more than 100 years ago to preserve the Cedar River watershed to ensure clean drinking water for future generations. Many places in the U.S. and around the world are not as fortunate.

Nature Conservancy scientists and policy experts, several of them based right here in Seattle, have created a new study, “Beyond the Source: The environmental, economic and community benefits of source water protection,” which explores the environmental, economic and community benefits of protecting the land surrounding where our water comes from. 

I was the project director for this report, and I live here and work out of the Seattle office.

Aerial over the Snohomish River basin (Photo © Paul Joseph Brown/LightHawk)

The Beyond the Source report and Protecting Water website we created explore the potential for green infrastructure, aimed at protecting water supplies, to provide benefits for biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation and human health and well-being.  It’s an exciting new way of thinking about how we can address multiple challenges facing local, national and global communities through conservation.  

This report was developed in partnership with the Natural Capital Project, Forest Trends, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Latin American Water Funds Partnership and wouldn’t have been possible without contributions from dozens of experts. The report analyzes the source watersheds of more than 4,000 large cities around the world. It illustrates how nature-based solutions such as reforestation, forest protection and improved agriculture practices can be implemented at a scale to make a difference in mitigating and adapting to climate change, conserving biodiversity and contributing to the health and well-being of billions of people.  

Villagers fishing on the river at Cururu, Bolivia (Photo © Ami Vitale/TNC)

The analyses find, for instance, that source-water protection activities could reduce the risk of regional extinctions, contribute 16 percent of the climate-change mitigation needed in the year 2050 to keep the world on a trajectory to keep temperature increases under 2 degrees Celsius and protect 5 percent of the economic value of global agricultural production by safeguarding pollinator habitat.

Water funds are explored as a successful mechanism for downstream water users to fund upstream land conservation and restoration. The report finds that one in six large cities around the world could pay for source-water protection through water-treatment savings and that the stacking of other co-benefits could make source-water protection affordable for additional cities.

Seattle is mentioned in the report as an example of a city that had the foresight to set aside much of its source watershed to protect this precious resource, unlike many cities around the world.

The Cedar River watershed (Photo © John Marshall)

My Seattle colleagues — Nathan Karres, Zach Ferdana, Cory Zyla — and I have played important roles in pulling this work together. Nathan was the technical lead for this project, working with other Nature Conservancy staff scientists and external experts to craft the scientific approach, run analyses and write up the results.

Zach leads a fantastic team of internal and external website developers to create the Protecting Water mapping site, using his extensive experience in building other Natural Solution sites to make the analytical data and water fund project information easily accessible to practitioners.

Cory provided information from our water-funds network to ensure alignment from across The Conservancy on the fundamentals of water funds and water-funds case studies

Kari Vigerstol

Kari Vigerstol

And I served as project director, overseeing the direction of the project, building partnerships, providing science expertise and writing and basically working to get this project out the door. It’s been a challenging but exciting project for all of us. Please don’t hesitate to contact us in the office to talk about this work. We are all always interested to answer questions, hear ideas and brainstorm about how we might apply this thinking on the ground in our state and country programs.

Read more about the project