Q&A: Securing Our Water
Andrea Erickson-Quiroz worked with farmers and ranchers in the Galapagos Islands, directed conservation programs in Mexico and served as state director of Wyoming before taking on her current role as managing director for water security.
You've been with The Nature Conservancy for a long time—21 years! What's kept you here?
TNC has given me every opportunity to do great things. We're fundamentally about building capacity and community—and in my experience, that's the right way to approach conservation.
We're fundamentally about building capacity and community—and in my experience, that's the right way to approach conservation.
How does your team apply that strategy when tackling our world’s water problems?
We strive to change the water sector globally by creating more investment in nature. That sounds very pie in the sky, but what it really comes down to is people in communities working together to manage their water supplies. And that requires building capacity in those communities.
One example is an approach called water funds. How do they work?
Water funds are a mechanism for water users to pay for the protection of the lands that filter and store their water. These source water protection projects range from changing agricultural practices to classic land protection, and they typically involve corporations, non-profit organizations, agricultural associations, individuals and city officials. While the local specifics vary, the goal is always the same: to provide water that's in good quantity and quality while improving the health of rivers and ecosystems.
What role does TNC play?
Our job is to bring everyone to the table and to be that connective tissue that makes us bigger than the sum of our parts. With 34 established water funds in China, Africa and the Americas, we have a consistent approach and we know how to make a good business case for a new water fund—but we couldn’t do it without the willingness of local stakeholders or without grounding our work within amazing local institutions.
Why are water funds an important strategy for protecting nature?
Freshwater systems are crashing. Our goal is to improve the health of a prioritized group of 20 rivers in meaningful, measurable ways by investing in natural infrastructure. Those efforts alone would improve water security and quality for 60 million people and improve over 1 million hectares of a wide range of ecosystems. And the biodiversity value would be massive if we could fully scale around the world: we could reduce the risk of extinction for over 5,400 terrestrial species while improving the health of rivers globally.
That’s huge. How does the cost compare to more traditional methods of securing water?
Natural infrastructure solutions, such as restored forests, can be more cost-effective than built infrastructure. Globally, the water sector spends around $600 billion a year. If 5 to 7 percent of that was spent on natural systems, it would save communities money and drive $40 billion to source water protection. We want to mainstream that kind of investment. Once people see that case for nature, we can go on to our next challenge.
Water Funds at Work in the Rio Grande
Overgrown forests and increasing temperatures are a recipe for disaster in arid northern New Mexico. After decades of fire suppression in the state’s ponderosa pine forests, the number of trees had increased from an average of 80 to as many as 2,000 per acre—meaning more fuel for catastrophic wildfires. To make matters worse, massive amounts of ash and debris are washed into the Rio Grande and its tributaries after fires (with runoff up to 100 times greater than from an unburned forest)—severely impacting water quality.
Looking for a solution, TNC convened more than 70 partners to develop a strategy. The result was the Rio Grande Water Fund, which supports thinning, prescribed fire and natural fire management to restore vital forests upstream for cleaner water downstream. And it worked. Time and again, the healthier, thinned forests have prevented the spread of potentially catastrophic wildfires, and the water supply for 1 million people is cleaner and more secure.
Since its launch in 2014, the fund has used about $4.55 million in private donations to leverage over $40 million in public funding, and an estimated 235 forestry jobs have been supported in rural communities. “Science and monitoring very clearly demonstrate the amazing benefits of these efforts,” says Andrea. “The project also inspires an enormous number of people in communities across the western United States and in Mexico, where they’re facing similar challenges and threats, to invest in these kinds of programs.”