Donor Profile: The Water Foundation
When a record-breaking drought hit California in 2011, many residents and elected representatives were looking for solutions. In that moment, environmental organizations and funders like the Water Foundation got to work.
“Sometimes, the most serious water challenges that people face on the ground are what lead to openings for policy change,” said Mike Myatt, program officer at the Water Foundation. “We and our partners try to remain nimble and ready to act, so when certain windows open for change, we can move forward.”
During that last major drought, those efforts resulted in the writing, advocating for, and ultimate passing of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), one of the most important pieces of water legislation in the past 100 years.
“People have been trying for a long time to do something on groundwater in California, and many people didn’t think it could be done,” said Myatt. “With our partners, we were planning to make a play on groundwater legislation at some point, and the opening came sooner than we had expected. Together, we dove in and dedicated our time and energy.”
Signed into law in 2014, SGMA created a path forward through California’s water resource challenges and mandated the creation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), local groups that are responsible for ensuring regional groundwater supplies are sustainably managed. The GSAs are charged with developing and implementing plans to make their local groundwater usage sustainable by 2040.
Since 2011, the Water Foundation, formerly an initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund, has worked with partners to advance lasting solutions to secure safe water for people, restore and sustain freshwater ecosystems, and build climate resilience, through direct grantmaking, field building and campaign strategy development. As one of the organizations leading statewide work to improve groundwater management, The Freshwater Trust (TFT) partners closely with the public foundation.
“TFT is really intentional about landowner, stakeholder and partner outreach,” said Myatt. “They pursue these strategic opportunities, but it’s always with partners on the ground. They take the time to build trust, and balance their strategic advice and expertise with a real respect for local knowledge and understanding.”
Over a series of grants, the Water Foundation supported TFT’s groundwater sustainability work in the Solano Subbasin in Northern California, including funding a pilot that combines Internet of Things (IoT) sensors with a blockchain platform that allows monitoring and tracking of groundwater use in real time.
The Water Foundation also convened TFT, environmental justice, community and nonprofit organizations, and academic partners to participate in the Groundwater Leadership Forum, which works together to support systems change in groundwater management.
“We’re excited to be partners with true innovators and leaders in the space,” said Alex Johnson, TFT’s Freshwater Fund Director. “Together, we share ideas, explore opportunities, and coordinate to figure out strategies that are effective and inclusive.”
Myatt, who was the third employee at the Water Foundation, grew up in Santa Rosa just down the street from a creek. In college, he studied environmental studies and economics, and has worked in water policy in California for more than two decades, including developing and administering the California Department of Water Resources’ multibillion-dollar annual budget. At the Water Foundation, he was integral in getting the 2016 Open and Transparent Water Data Act passed, which provides an opportunity to make water and ecological data more readily available, empowering water users to make more informed decisions. Now, Myatt supports implementation of this act on the board of a new nonprofit, the California Water Data Consortium.
“I’ve always really been attracted to bringing together different points of view and trying to ensure that solutions are both good for the environment and good for jobs,” said Myatt. “I consider myself a matchmaker, where I try to introduce people that are smarter than me, so they can work together to help move forward new and innovative solutions.”
2020 has brought a global pandemic and mass protests for equity and justice, including in the environmental sector. To support grantees in the pandemic, the Water Foundation has fast-tracked funds for COVID-19 response, increased flexibility on deadlines, and worked with grantees whose projects were derailed.
“I’m keenly aware of how lucky I am to have good management and a good situation. Not everyone is so lucky, and we’re trying to do the best we can to be as helpful as possible,” said Myatt. “We were already focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, but this year made it startingly obvious how important it is. We’re starting to think about changes, not just to our grantmaking but our hiring, our policy manuals and what we ask of grantees, and more.”
In addition to its funding on groundwater management, Water Foundation supports the development of new leaders in water, funds environmental justice projects, and works with its partners to ensure safe drinking water for communities that lack access to it, including helping California become the first state to fund the human right to water and supporting the passing of Measure W, which created the Safe, Clean Water Program to improve water quality and quantity for communities in Los Angeles.
“To create lasting change, you’ve got to start with listening and asking questions,” said Myatt. “That’s something that TFT does really well.”
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