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When it comes to watershed restoration, collaboration is key – An Interview With Laura McCarthy

Laura McCarthytake the opportunity to invent a solution that’s going to truly address the shared problems that your coalition is united behind. There’s no point in being timid. If you’re going to do it, go all out.

We spoke with Laura about what communities can do to protect their watersheds from catastrophic wilfire, what’s working and what’s been challenging.


Why did the Nature Conservancy choose the water fund collaborative approach to solving the Rio Grande’s headwaters restoration needs?

I’ll answer the question in two parts, “collaborative” and “water fund,” because the rationale is different for each. The collaborative part is necessary because we have a very complex history of land and water management in New Mexico. We have many diverse interests that have a shared value – caring for land, water and people. In addition to our multi-faceted cultural environment, we have a complex set of jurisdictions: that is, we have multiple federal, state, local and tribal government agencies. And furthermore, the land and water management responsibilities are split up among five or six different agencies. In addition to counties and local governments, we have a number of tribes and many historic land grants.

With this complex social and institutional landscape, the only way to implement a large-scale solution is to figure out how to transcend the jurisdictional boundaries and cultural differences. A collaborative structure provides the vehicle for a respectful and inclusive conversation. That conversation leads to shared learning and joint implementation.

The other half of the question is about the water fund. A water fund is a financial mechanism that can be structured in many different ways but its central tenet is that downstream water users are helping to pay for work upstream to protect their water sources. Our water fund mechanism allows money to flow in multiple directions, from water users upstream into source water protection, and from communities to protect their own water sources. There are also financial co-benefits for all of the investors.

We didn’t start with the mindset of “let’s create a water fund.” Instead, we went in to this with an open mind, as in “Let’s see if the water fund tool can work in this situation.”
The Santa Fe Watershed Investment Program was our first proof of concept project. We got to the success benchmark in Santa Fe in 2009 and in 2011 we started scoping for the Rio Grande Water Fund.

What is working with this approach? And what has been challenging?

The collaborative part is definitely working. We started the Rio Grande Water Fund with an advisory board of 25 people and we created a few sub committees. One of those was the Structure and Governance working group that met every month for two years and proposed a structure for the Fund. Once we implemented the structure, which was essentially to have a collaborative charter, we thought we’d have the same 25 organizations signing on. But today we are at 53 organizations and still growing. This is a huge surprise for us. We’ve stopped doing outreach. People come to us now and say, “We want to be part of this.” It’s awesome. And we have no limits on who can participate. We will just keep finding bigger places to hold our meetings so that everyone can be together in one place a couple of times a year.

The other thing that’s really working well is leveraging funding. The structure that was decided upon by the Structure and Governance working group was to have two pathways for funding. One is government-to-government agreement. The other is using the Rio Grande Water Fund as a vehicle to receive and distribute funds with fiscal oversight by the Nature Conservancy. The sources of this funding are generally private – from foundations, corporations, small businesses or individual donors.

The private money is leveraging the public sector money. In two years we have raised two million dollars of funding that leveraged $9 million of public funding.

Now that we’re putting a lot of money on the ground, we are entering into an adaptive management and learning phase and our biggest challenge is capacity building. Everybody who’s involved is building their capacity, whether it’s the Forest Service churning out contracts and local businesses writing up scopes of work, or the monitoring youth crew learning how to schedule their field work efficiently – we are all feeling real, practical, implementation growing pains.

I mentioned that we have a monitoring crew that’s comprised of youth from a local university with oversight from our statewide forest and watershed restoration institute, that is training and will be the long-term data repository. This work is going well but we are also learning that having a roving crew takes a lot of planning and coordination with the land managers directly.

Finally, we’re burning through the first set of ready-to-go projects and we need to be working on building a pipeline of projects that will support a robust program of work. We’re trying to do that in a coordinated and integrated way and it’s just hard. It’s doable but it takes a lot of time.

Do you have any unlikely allies within the Fund’s charter members?

Yes, all kinds. Take the Sierra Club and the New Mexico Business Water Task Force, comprised primarily of real estate developers. We have acequias and the Land Grant Council and other traditional water and land users, and the regulating agencies that they sometimes dislike.
We’ve also been able to bring together the water and land managers. You may think that would have happened before, but we quickly found out that the land and forest managers didn’t know the water managers and vice versa. They speak different languages and think about land and water very differently. We had land management professionals working in New Mexico for 20 years or more who had never thought about the plumbing of our water systems – the dams, diversions and ditches that are the mainstay of the water manager’s work. And likewise those who were managing the dams and the irrigation districts really hadn’t thought about the forests that provide the water in the first place. A large part of our collaborative work is bringing these two communities to be in touch with each other.

Knowing what you know now, what are the top three things that you would share with other communities who are interested in the water fund model?

The first is to have a long scoping (or pre-feasibility) phase where you talk to a lot of people, get ideas, and figure out if a water fund is the right tool for you. From that you might get a sense of the kind of unlikely allies can you put together in a coalition. And then, the second thing, is that the more unusual your coalition is, the better the traction you get. At least that’s our experience. We’ll put our two most opposed groups together on a panel before the legislature and sail through. The third thing is to get creative. If the signals are there that a water fund is the right tool for your situation, then take the opportunity to invent a solution that’s going to truly address the shared problems that your coalition is united behind. There’s no point in being timid. If you’re going to do it, go all out.

Laura McCarthy is Director of Conservation Programs for the Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. She manages the Conservancy’s conservation work in the Rio Grande, Gila and San Juan basins. Laura developed the Santa Fe Water Source Protection Fund in 2009 and launched the Rio Grande Water Fund in 2014. 

Photo Credit: The Nature Conservancy

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