Reflecting: Q&A with Mott’s Environment Program Director on 20 years of freshwater grantmaking in the Southeastern U.S.

A woman sits at the mast of a canoe with a medium sized dog looking over her sholder and enjoying the beautiful scene down river.
A morning paddle on the Chattahoochee River with a canine friend. Photo: Joe Cook/Georgia Water Coalition

In 1999, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation launched a portfolio of grantmaking focused on restoring and protecting rivers and other freshwater resources in the Southeastern United States. Modeled after Mott’s grantmaking in the Great Lakes region, the work was focused on protecting rivers that provide drinking water to millions of people and support numerous recreational activities. Over the course of 20 years, the Foundation provided $35 million to 50 different grantees working in six Southeastern states: Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. In 2018, Mott ended our Southeastern grantmaking to focus more resources on the Great Lakes and the region’s burgeoning drinking water crisis. In this Q&A, Environment Program Director Sam Passmore discusses the rationale behind Mott’s grantmaking in the Southeast, major accomplishments and lessons learned.

Mott: What prompted Mott’s freshwater grantmaking in the Southeastern U.S.?

Environment Program Director Sam Passmore's headshot.
Sam Passmore. Photo: Cristina Wright

Sam Passmore: In the 1990s, we were looking to expand our freshwater grantmaking beyond the Great Lakes basin, to a region that was rich in biological diversity but underserved by environmental advocacy groups. The Southeastern states fit the bill. They are home to world class rivers and encompass some of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth, but the regulatory environment was weak, and local advocacy groups needed more capacity to protect the natural resources they so dearly loved. It was a significant, pressing issue.

Mott: What kind of work did Mott support?

Passmore: We funded a variety of projects and supported many organizations. We supported efforts to: improve rivers by requiring utilities to make hydropower dams more environmentally friendly; help states develop better water management policies; reduce water pollution from industries and municipalities; and increase the streamflow in several major river systems. The work was urgently needed because many communities in the region were growing rapidly. That meant greater demand for water and a surge in the construction of new homes and businesses, which increased soil erosion and sent harmful sediment into rivers. All of this was happening against a backdrop of weak — in some cases, non-existent — water management policies. At the same time, many hydropower dams in the region that were built before modern environmental laws were passed were up for long-term license renewals. This provided a rare opportunity for our grantees to inform federal policies, which now require utilities to modify their dam operations in ways that improve rivers while continuing to meet energy needs.

Mott: What did you hope to achieve?

Passmore: The overarching goal was to protect and restore high quality rivers by improving water quality and increasing streamflow. We did that by increasing the capacity of local and regional environmental groups, and by supporting work that informed new policies designed to enhance the protection of freshwater resources. The goal of the federal Clean Water Act is to ensure that all waters of the United States are fishable and swimmable, and our grantees in the Southeast worked hard and made progress toward accomplishing that in several large river systems. Because we helped our grantees build their organizational strength, they will continue their efforts for years to come — even though we have exited the region.

Mott: Has Mott’s funding made a difference?

Passmore: Yes, I think so. River groups across the region are stronger than when we started. Water policies have been improved in some states, particularly when it comes to protecting the natural flow of rivers. And many rivers across the region are healthier, due to such measures as changing the way hydropower dams are operated.

One of the greatest successes has been in the growth and strengthening of the environmental community. The Georgia Water Coalition is a great example: The number of member groups in the coalition increased from four in 2002 to 256 in 2018. The growth of that coalition and other organizations, such as the Louisiana-based Gulf Restoration Network, will have long-term, positive effects on the environment and quality of life in the Southeast.

Mott doesn’t deserve all the credit for these improvements. We were a major funder, but many other philanthropic organizations also supported this work. Most important, our grantees were determined to be successful, strong and enduring organizations

Mott: What lessons did Mott learn from this work?

Passmore: This has almost become cliché, but we observed the benefits of long-term funding commitments. Selecting good grantees and supporting their work for several years — in some cases, for two decades — was key to their success. Some of our grantees in Georgia also showed that it’s possible to engage people with different perspectives in efforts to restore and protect rivers and other freshwater resources. The Georgia Water Coalition, for instance, has done a great job of explaining how healthy rivers are in everyone’s best interest, and then using that message to bring about change.

Mott: Is there more work to be done?

Passmore: Of course. This kind of work is never really done. Water quality and water quantity issues will remain challenges for Southeastern states for the foreseeable future. The difference now is that environmental advocacy groups in the region are well positioned to address those issues, and more voters are engaged in efforts to protect freshwater ecosystems. In terms of protecting those resources, the region is in a much better place than it was 20 years ago.