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Our Key Issues and the Next Five Years

Resilience. Policy. Agriculture. Drinking water. 

What do these terms mean to you? For River Network, they’re the four key issues that are central to addressing the current water crisis in the United States. 

In 2018, based on input from the network, we introduced these key issues to focus our collective efforts through our Strategic Plan. Their timeliness; alignment with our existing work; emergence from the network, intersections with equity, diversity, and inclusion; and the opportunities they presented to engage wider audiences and make a difference in local communities were impossible to ignore. 

Now, as our Strategic Plan wraps up at the end of this year—and we look to the future—this still holds true. 

Our value as a backbone organization that helps connect, align, and strengthen the efforts of local groups, agencies, tribes, and utilities, is more important than ever. Hear why from members and our team: 

 Here’s how the key issues continue to shape our work alongside the thousands of water leaders creating lasting and sustainable change at the local level. 

Climate resilience is the topic of the day; this week’s IPCC report shows we need to do more to protect our communities and ecosystems. With storms, drought and fires becoming less predictable and more intense rivers and their connected floodplains, wetlands, and green infrastructure can help cities and communities become more resilient to climate change and better able to withstand the impacts of more extreme weather and temperatures. We’re supporting our network by: 

  • Leading change at the intersection of water equity and climate threats to amplify and integrate local voices into climate and community resilience initiatives by tripling the number of geographies using our Leadership Development and Community-Led Research tools and cohorts. 
  • Combatting litter challenges across local waterways in dozens of communities by engaging local leaders to become champions of behavior change, advocacy, and the installation of in-stream litter removal devices. 
  • Diversifying and expanding community power over local waters by providing financial and logistical support to community leaders in partnership with the US Forest Service and National Park Service. 

Policy work shifted from defense to offense with a new federal administration taking office in 2021. The emphasis on equity and justice as well as infrastructure to better deliver the benefits of clean water and protections from harm caused by water has opened doors to dialogue between the federal government and both the nonprofit sector and community perspectives and voices. We’re supporting our network by: 

  • Reissuing our transformational Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual to reflect today’s pressing clean water and equity challenges as we approach the 50th anniversary of this landmark law, and train the next generation of water leaders to use it.  
  • Giving local communities a voice in Washington, DC, through monthly federal policy calls and convening and training groups at the US Capitol to effectively engage with their representatives.
  • Empowering state-level water leaders through our comprehensive State Policy Hub, to share and showcase innovative policies with a national audience.
  • Training advocates to advance an equitable water policy agenda that benefits low-income and communities of color, using our new Equitable Water Infrastructure Toolkit. 

Important opportunities to align agriculture with conservation are emerging. Agriculture is the source of both the food and fiber that we all depend upon, and of water insecurity and contamination. Yet only by working together can we find a path forward that leaves enough high-quality water in rivers for them to remain viable and healthy, while continuing to produce what is needed by society. We’re supporting our network and the agricultural community by: 

  • Deepening agricultural innovation to improve river health, acting as the “glue” connecting place-based coalitions and agricultural producers across the country and ensuring the availability of financial and expert support to get novel projects off the ground.  
  • Promoting solutions that support river health and productive farms and ranches by helping groups leverage private funding sources, promoting innovative policy solutions and facilitating knowledge sharing and nationwide learning across our network.
  • Ensuring the voices and perspectives of the low-income and communities of color that have historically been excluded from this sector are included and invited to have a voice in the larger agricultural community. 

Drinking water took center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, as households dealt with water shutoffs and other access issues. We believe it is unconscionable that anyone in our nation would be without access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water, yet we also recognize that this is far too common. Building upon our work to demystify how to engage in drinking water protection and advocacy, we’re supporting our network by: 

  • Halting water shutoffs for households struggling to afford their water bills by convening and empowering groups to advocate for effective local and state policies and programs.  
  • Training community advocates to address water access and affordability in their communities with River Network toolkits that demystify the federal funding landscape and explain how to influence decision makers.  
  • Building strong and authentic relationships between communities and their water utilities to work together to achieve sustainable and equitable water management. 

As we stated in 2018, over a third of Americans are at risk of losing affordable drinking water, and both flood risk and drought contribute to social and economic insecurity. More than half of our rivers remain in poor health and climate change will exacerbate many of these problems. 

There is still much work to do. Over the next five years, we will continue to align our network for collective action on these four Key Issues, and define a new path forward that accelerates the power of our network to achieve systemic change, particularly on issues related to climate justice and water equity.

This is what our Strategic “Refresh” is all about, as well as identifying what new and existing partnerships and collaborations are necessary for success, while continuing to provide advocates with the tools to build strong organizations and leaders and bring data to action at the community level. Our “Refresh” is not about finding a new set of key issues but rather taking the next step forward together to build a future that includes clean water and healthy rivers for everyone.  

Look for more this fall, and for our members, we invite you to help inform where we’re heading, by participating in the State of the Network Survey. Learn more in Katherine Baer’s blog post and take the survey here. 

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