Water for life: A Roundtable


Story by Wendy Marsh, Former Associate Director of Philanthropy
Photograph by Ian Shive

The Nature Conservancy regularly brings together experts from across sectors to tackle our most pressing issues. A recent round table focused on water.

State Director, Mike Stevens, set the stage, saying “I don’t think there’s any issue that looms larger for us than the issue of water. On one side of the state we don’t have enough of it; on the other side we sometimes have far too much.“

Among the issues: Major concerns about drought in eastern Washington (which will come to a head this spring because of the lack of snowpack this winter). There are public safety issues with the flooding in the Chehalis and Puyallup areas. And we have water quality issues. Toxins that run down our storm drains are the leading source of pollution in Puget Sound. With a changing climate, these challenges become more pressing each year.

Two key conclusions emerged from the round table: 

 1. We must engage a broader set of voices – business, government, agricultural and citizens. That means approaching the issue in a way that resonates from economic, environmental and social standpoints. That means making the economic case for businesses. It also means educating people that we have a problem – many people don’t know that Puget Sound is one of the world’s most toxic estuaries. It’s about changing people’s behaviors. It’s about working with regulators around changing the flow of water in cityscapes. We must help people realize they all need to be a part of the solution. 

There’s a need for scalable projects that work and can be replicated. An example is the use of water funds. The Nature Conservancy started with one water fund in Quito, Ecuador; the model operates like an endowment. Instead of building costly treatment plants, the largest water users in an area – including major brewers, municipal water authorities, a sugar cane growers association and others – make voluntary investments into a central fund. When the fund is fully capitalized, earnings are directed toward conservation activities upstream, such as reforestation, and to enabling rural people who live near key waterways to start small businesses and organic gardens that avoid damaging forests and grasslands. The result is a sustainable source of conservation funding. And that model has now taken off.

Bottom line: It is time for us to give back to the resource that has supplied our business, industry and livelihoods. So that it can continue to for centuries to come.

As one participant remarked at the close of the session “I have a lot of hope and optimism for Puget Sound. And I think The Nature Conservancy in particular has an extremely critical role to play in this.”