What’s a water fund, anyway?
The usual answer: A way for downstream water users like breweries or municipal utilities to fund the conservation of upstream watersheds — in order to secure their water supplies.
But for NatureNet Fellow Dan Auerbach, a water fund is also a vivid reminder of our basic connection to our natural surroundings.
“Understanding that our water comes not from the tap but from the hills is critical,” says Auerbach, an ecologist who’s just completed his doctoral work at Colorado State University and will be associated with Cornell University during his Fellowship.
“The idea of a fund connects us to that relationship. It’s a chance for gratitude and responsibility toward what nature provides, and a fund’s actions can plant seeds of good stewardship in a world that increasingly promotes disconnection and dislocation.”
That kind of expansive perspective is typical of Auerbach, who sculpted and studied literary criticism and molecular biology as an undergraduate. “I think river rock is a perfect piece of sculpture,” he says. “I was never going to do better than that.”
His graduate work in Colorado exposed him to a different kind of complexity: the challenges of balancing biodiversity protection with the expectations society has for abundant water supplies — challenges whose solution requires ongoing communications and compromise.
“There’s tension in the Colorado River Basin between water for irrigated agriculture and cities and energy, on the one hand, and the need to maintain viable habitat for native fish and vegetation and the recreation economy that depends on healthy rivers,” Auerbach says.
“River management there is like a really committed marriage, an ongoing process of continually checking in and updating. Most people who are diverting water to irrigate their fields aren’t interested in harming the ecosystem and spoiling our heritage. So it becomes a question of how we negotiate the balance of their needs with those of all the amazing bugs and fish in the streams.”
Through his work at Colorado State, Auerbach was exposed to processes like the Ecological Limits of Hydrologic Alteraction (ELOHA), one method that The Nature Conservancy is using to structure such negotiations, combining science about river basin hydrology and ecological responses to varying water flow with information about users’ needs.
Now, as part of his NatureNet Fellowship, he wants to bring that kind of three-dimensional knowledge to water funds in order to help resolve potential conflicts among those involved in their development.
“We know that water funds are a socially palatable idea, but the devil is in the details in turning that idea into reality — and it’s those details that I’m interested in,” says Auerbach.
“For instance: How do we figure out the best way to spend money to hit short-term goals like reducing fecal coliform or sediment in the water, while also maximizing the long-term awareness that we don’t want high levels of fecal coliform in the river in the first place?
“How do we simultaneously strengthen the ‘business case’ for funds — that they deliver appreciable returns for investors’ objectives — alongside the ‘ecological case’ that they improve ecosystem structure and function in a focal watershed?”
The answers, he adds, will inevitably be nuanced — and the questions will continue to evolve as funds develop. Factors that can be measured relatively easily with a thermometer or a sediment or connectivity probe, for instance, might diminish in importance in favor of how the fund is impacting measures of women’s empowerment.
And Auerbach is excited to have the opportunity to help shape these narratives as a NatureNet Fellow.
“First, this fellowship is just a chance to meet a whole bunch of really impressive, dynamic, engaged people,” he says. “But I also like the idea we’re looking for conservation opportunities that don’t necessarily depend on top-down regulation — but instead use a market-based strategy that aligns people’s sense of what’s good for them with what’s good for the world and for the larger ecosystem they inhabit.”
“The reality of our world is that corporations and businesses play a very large role in our day-to-day existence,” Auerbach adds. “Instead of demonizing these entities, it’s an exciting chance to help them do what many want to do anyway — which is the right thing for a thriving planet”
The water fund idea gives him hope.
“The way we perceive and value water can change with time, like the amount of water in the river naturally varies,” Auerbach says. “It won’t be easy, but we need to find lasting conservation solutions that acknowledge the connections between ecosystems and our economic well-being.”
“I’ve been told that you know there might be something to a water agreement in Colorado if you’re still working on it five years after it started — and that if you’re still working on it 10 years after you started, now you’re really getting somewhere. And within the next 10 to 20, you might actually get there.”