Dry Land: A New Grantmaker Seeks to Fix How the West Manages Water

For decades, foundations have worked to improve access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world. These days, water philanthropy has a new target country: the United States. And while funder-backed efforts to ensure clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan, have captured much attention, the biggest philanthropic action on water issues has been in the parched West. 

During the driest days of the California drought, a funder-backed initiative emerged as an influential voice trying to reshape the way the state manages its water. 

This organization, the California Water Foundation, had some wins, including the passage of a $7 billion water bond that it backed, and some of the most comprehensive water policy legislation the state has ever seen. Its executive director, water resource management expert Lester Snow became a consistent voice in the state’s conversation over how to fix its fragmented and outdated approach to water.

Now the California Water Foundation is taking its show on the road, coming out as a standalone philanthropy called the Water Foundation, which will attempt to extend its reach into the larger American West. 

Aside from the geographic focus, the main difference is that the organization will no longer be an initiative under the Resources Legacy Fund, a prominent nonprofit that conducts donor-driven programs. Lester Snow will also no longer lead the effort, which will now be led by former Jerry Brown administration official Wade Crowfoot. 


Many of the people and philanthropic forces that created and supported California Water Foundation are and will likely continue the effort in its new form. It was initially pulled together by the Pisces, S.D. Bechtel, Jr., and Packard foundations. The new entity’s board of directors includes chair David Beckman, who is also president of the Pisces Foundation, and Lauren Dachs of Bechtel serving as vice-chair. 

There’s also a lot of overlap with the relatively new Water Funder Initiative, formed by some of the same foundations behind the Water Foundation, with which it shares common goals. The WFI’s role, however, is to guide investments, while the Water Foundation will be more hands-on, making grants and driving specific priorities.

These efforts are also tied together by the main principles backing them. Mainly, they’re all looking to create more integrated, modern approaches to water management. That is, they seek to tie together supply and quality issues, and break down silos that characterize the cobbled-together water management strategies the country has developed over decades. 

So some of its priorities include making sure drinking water is clean and safe, protecting groundwater supplies, drought contingency plans, water conservation in cities, and restoring ecosystems. You can see how it takes a kind of a bird’s eye view of the issues. 

As far as tactics, working with and influencing government is a big one, considering its past spearheading of groundwater policy in California, and the fact that key staffers are former state employees and legislative staff. And it favors public outreach and building diverse coalitions. But the funder is also big on innovation, including backing experiments in water management and marketing software to influence consumer behavior. 

The Water Foundation doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals, but you can contact them with ideas here.