By Femke Oldham
In November of 2008, during what some may call the height of the Great Recession, I moved to California to begin working for The Watershed Project and a local creek group, SPAWNERS. I was a newbie to the Bay Area watershed movement and came to the scene uncertain about the future of grassroots environmental action in the face of global economic turmoil. Yet, I was full of excitement about the chance to work on a community level to protect local creeks. Nearly five years later, I am leaving my job to pursue a graduate degree, and I find myself in a state of reflection. I have observed and been part of a major shift from competition to collaboration among like-minded grassroots watershed groups in the Bay Area.
Major funding streams from state agencies like the Department of Conservation and the Coastal Conservancy dried up almost overnight in early 2009 due to the inability of the state legislature to pass a budget. When I first started fundraising for The Watershed Project and SPAWNERS, it seemed like every time a new grant application came up, I worried about stepping on toes. If any of our partner organizations were applying for the same grant, it felt like funding for my project would immediately detract from funding for their projects—a strange predicament when we were both after a similar goal. This sense of quiet competition bothered me.
Eventually, along with dozens of other like-minded organizations in the Bay Area, we found ourselves facing a seemingly dire financial situation. In order to make sense of the budget uncertainty and to create a louder voice for watershed groups, it was imperative to work together with former grant competitors to lobby local politicians to resume restoration funding throughout the state. We started holding meetings and laid all of our plans on the table. We began to strategize ways to work together in the short AND long term. And most importantly, we finally vocalized our uneasiness over forced competition among watershed groups in previous years. We began to collaborate, and to foster a watershed movement.
Just as we’ve learned from watershed ecology, we are all interconnected. We must respect the other groups operating around us just as we do the local flora and fauna. Nurturing the bonds between us, rather than giving weight to our differences, will make us all stronger and continue to grow a vibrant and powerful Bay Area watershed movement. I sincerely hope that this trend toward collaboration over competition continues and becomes known as one of the unexpected silver linings of the Great Recession, and that decision makers will understand the importance of healthy watersheds to our communities and to our world.