This article originally appeared in SoCal Grantmakers on May 11, 2022.

On World Water Day (March 22), clean water advocates across the state joined California Governor Gavin Newsom to announce the Drought Resilience Challenge, a public-private partnership to direct philanthropic investment into transformative changes to California’s water management in the face of climate change. The Challenge was launched at a critical moment in the state’s drought history.

California began this year with the driest first few months on record. Unfortunately, the status quo will likely lead to more unrelenting heat, ferocious wildfires, dried-up wells, toxic tap water, and parched farmland. California is home to the most billionaires in the nation, but an estimated 1 million Californians lack regular access to clean drinking water. Water-insecure residents are predominantly people of color whose water can be laced with arsenic, nitrate, or hexavalent chromium, chemicals linked to skin lesions, birth defects, and stomach cancers. In the surrounding rivers and streams, migratory birds are disappearing while certain salmon runs, which are critical to the way of life of Native people, face extinction.

Investments in Drought Relief and Water Resilience

Leaders who make decisions about water have historically failed to prioritize the lowest-income communities and the state’s most fragile ecosystems, so public dollars traditionally bypass the people and wildlife that need them most. However, tides may change. This past year saw unprecedented public investment in water infrastructure. California allocated $5 billion for drought relief and water management, while the federal infrastructure law approved $3.5 billion for clean drinking water and related infrastructure in the state and more than $4.5 billion for watershed restoration nationally.

The Newsom administration recognizes the importance of supporting underrepresented communities in building the necessary power and organizational capacity to advance sustainable policies and practices. The Drought Resilience Challenge will help ensure that public water funding serves natural ecosystems and all communities, particularly those who have historically been excluded, including Black and brown communities, immigrant communities, and indigenous communities. The lived experience of individuals most affected by drought conditions enables them to best understand, design, and drive durable decisions. These water leaders will stay committed to fighting for — and carrying out — policies and projects that help their communities. This may include drinking water treatment and projects that restore natural habitats or replenish groundwater.

Frontline Leaders Need Our Support

While the Drought Resilience Challenge is about long-term resilience, our frontline leaders are also addressing the immediate needs generated by California’s current drought disaster. Clean water needs to move swiftly to communities and failing ecosystems that need it. The Challenge couples these crisis responses with preventative measures that correct inequitable decisions of the past.

True systemic drought resilience is possible when philanthropy is deployed in this manner. For instance, amid the 2012-2016 drought, community-based organizations, advocacy organizations, and funders formed a coalition to address the alarming problem of rapidly depleting groundwater. The resulting Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) prohibits those pumping water from the ground from damaging other water users, water quality, and the environment and sets a date of 2040 to return California’s aquifers to sustainability. The SGMA law established one of the most progressive groundwater programs in the nation. As focus shifts to implementation, philanthropy needs to continue to work with groups statewide to ensure the law is carried out effectively and equitably.

Philanthropy’s Role in the Drought Resilience Challenge

The Drought Resilience Challenge will be housed at and deployed by the Water Foundation, a public foundation leading philanthropic efforts to solve some of the most challenging water challenges across California and the nation. The Water Foundation brings expertise on interconnected water issues, grantmaking capacity, deep relationships with partners in the field, and a tested model for deploying resources quickly where they are most needed. Resources pooled through the Challenge will be used to:

  • Build community power and capacity to benefit from public funding
  • Support water leaders who can represent the community and science-based priorities so they can design solutions that work for communities and nature
  • Pivot toward systemic solutions by aligning relief and recovery efforts with long-term strategies and investments
  • Promote sustainable strategies for land repurposing, landscape-scale restoration, and re-matriation of lands and waters to indigenous communities.

The vision of the California Drought Resilience Challenge is a truly equitable and resilient water system for nature and all people. A wave of change is just beginning to break. Amid unprecedented public investment in water, community organizations are ready to ignite people into participatory action. Philanthropy — particularly funders who live or work in California —can’t let this wave pass us by. Let’s add momentum by addressing the immediate needs of water-insecure communities and threatened ecosystems and making the long-term investments needed to help communities sustain, steward, and share our most precious resource.

To learn more about the California Drought Resilience Challenge, please reach out to Nikki Verhoff, Director of Strategic Partnerships at