Building on Success – An Interview with Laura McCarthy
What I learned was that part of how you build coalitions, and also great staff teamwork, is by having a really ambitious goal and challenging yourselves to get there. It took a lot of creative energy, but it was totally invigorating too.
The Rio Grande Water Fund is a shining accomplishment for source water protection efforts across the West. The Fund is built on a broad, diverse partnership and is delivering results far earlier than anticipated. Established in 2014, the Fund is a groundbreaking project that protects and restores vital forests upstream in order to ensure a continuous supply of clean water to the 1 million New Mexicans dependent on the Rio Grande.
After a robust four years of the Rio Grande Water Fund’s work, its founder and visionary, Laura McCarthy, has made the leap to the public sector and is now serving as the New Mexico State Forester in Governor Lujan Grisham’s administration. We sat down with Laura to ask her about the work she’s most proud of as she leaves the Water Fund, and what she’s most excited to do in her new job.
What are you most proud of as you leave the Rio Grande Water Fund?
I’m most proud that in four years time the Water Fund and partners have collectively restored 108,000 acres. That is over 18% of the way toward our 20-year goal. So we are on track. I had always imagined we’d have a ramp-up period that would last a while, but we very quickly got to the right pace and scale.
And there are two other intertwined factors: First, we raised over $4 million of private sector money and that fundraising leveraged $40 million of public sector money. Second, the Water Fund has 75 signatories. We didn’t set out to build such a big partnership, but it happened naturally. The process was very inclusive, and that turned out to be a major strength.
Are there any particular learnings you’d like to share with the Carpe Diem West audience? Yes! Be OK with fear of failure. Set ambitious goals and be OK with the fact that you’re going to worry, and you might not get there. I worried for the first two years, a lot, because it was so ambitious and I thought: we’re never going to raise this kind of money! What I learned was that part of how you build coalitions, and also great staff teamwork, is by having a really ambitious goal and challenging yourselves to get there. It took a lot of creative energy, but it was totally invigorating too.
What is the next set of challenges for the Rio Grande Water Fund? The Water Fund is now transitioning from 18 projects to upward of 25 projects going at once. Absolutely key to its success have been outstanding communications and documentation. The Water Fund took results and packaged them into stories that are meaningful to many people. How will that happen for 25 projects? Each of these projects deserves a story, but it’s a question of how to scale up that approach.
As you step into this new position as the New Mexico State Forester, what are you most excited about? I’m most excited about being able to work statewide. I’m really looking forward to taking the lessons we’ve learned about public/private partnerships, about coalition-building, about joint priority setting, and applying that to watersheds across the state. Many of these watersheds have an equally high need as the Rio Grande, but they don’t necessarily have downstream water users. This is where having the new recurring funding from (New Mexico) HB 266 is going to be really important. I’m also really looking forward to putting another learning into action: part of what held us back from scaling up fast was thinking each agency had to do their work themselves. Now there’s a recognition, statewide, that if we pool money we can do so much more, so much faster.
Any other big themes or new trends you’d like to share? I’m excited to be working as part of Gov. Lujan Grisham’s administration, which is building climate resilience into everything we do. That requires us to work at bigger scales and across sectors. I’m so excited that in my role as State Forester, and with the passage of HB 266, I’m now in a role to convene other state agencies that traditionally haven’t considered watershed restoration part of their business. We know that everyone has a role to play – whether co-funding or co-planning or co-implementation or getting our stakeholders together to plan.
Working at a NGO I could ask for that kind of collaboration but I couldn’t create it. Now I’m in a position to be a convener of conversations. Source-water protection and watershed restoration is one set of incredibly powerful multi-benefit solutions for communities facing the reality of climate change, and our state will keep leading the way.
In March 2019, Laura was appointed State Forester by New Mexico’s Governor Lujan Grisham. Prior to that, Laura was Director of Conservation Programs for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. She managed the Conservancy’s conservation work in the Rio Grande, Gila and San Juan basins. Laura co-founded the Santa Fe Water Source Protection Fund in 2009, and launched the Rio Grande Water Fund in 2014.