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Meet the Minds: Nick Wobbrock on Innovative Ways to Fund Healthy Forests

Since healthy mountain forests are key watersheds for California, Blue Forest Conservation is helping to improve forest health (and combat wildfires) with a new economic model that brings together unlikely partners.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
California wildfires
Fire trucks and horse trailers stage outside Wildlife Waystation in Santa Clarita, Calif., on Saturday, July 23, 2016.Katharine Lotze/The Santa Clarita Valley Signal via AP

Rising temperatures and five years of drought have significantly increased the risk of devastating fires in California’s forests. Half of the top 20 largest fires by acreage in the state’s history dating back to the 1920s have occurred since 2002, Jane Upton, deputy director of communication for the California Department of Forestry, told Water Deeply this summer, and that trend is only expected to grow worse.

But the startup Blue Forest Conservation has a plan to help combat forest fires that has never been tried before. The company is developing the first Forest Resilience Bond, a way for private entities to invest in forest restoration programs that help prevent forest fires and reduce firefighting costs.

Water Deeply spoke with Blue Forest Conservation cofounder Nick Wobbrock about the plan, and what he has learned about California water issues while working on it.

Water Deeply: What are you working on that you want the world to know?

Nick Wobbrock: At Blue Forest Conservation, we are working with partners to create the Forest Resilience Bond (FRB) – an innovative investment vehicle that allows private capital to fund forest and watershed health. We often think of our water infrastructure as exclusively human-made (reservoirs, pipes and treatment systems), but our natural infrastructure, such as healthy forests, are also essential to providing clean and reliable water supplies. Devastating wildfires threaten our infrastructure, rural communities, habitat and water quality, and can dump costly amounts of sediment into reservoirs.

The good news is that there is a proven solution to this challenge: forest restoration. Through the strategic removal of hazardous fuels – especially small and dying vegetation – forest restoration lowers the risk and intensity of wildfires and protects the quality and abundance of water resources. Unfortunately, neither public authorities nor private landowners have the budget capacity to implement this solution on their own at the scale required.

To address this funding gap, the FRB deploys private capital to fund proactive forest restoration. Beneficiaries, including private landowners and public agencies and utilities, repay investors (such as foundations and state pension funds) over time. By bringing together multiple payers to share the cost of restoration and tying payments to realized economic benefits, the FRB creates a compelling economic case for landowners as well as investors.

With nearly tens of millions of acres of essential watersheds (providing clean drinking water to millions) at high fire risk, we feel that a scalable financing solution to the dual challenges of severe drought and catastrophic wildfire can no longer wait.

Water Deeply: What surprised you in the past year about work in the water field?

Wobbrock: I was surprised to learn the degree to which major metropolitan areas are interconnected with, and dependent, on mountain watersheds located hundreds of miles away. Specifically in California, we are all intricately connected to Mother Nature, from our forests to our faucets. Threats to a single community, ecosystem, or economy also tangentially threaten nearly every other Californian. Our water systems are no different, and while policy solutions may be difficult and time consuming to achieve, we’ve learned that making compelling economic cases to all stakeholders – both rural and urban – can bring together parties that have little history of working together.

Water Deeply: Who/what do you find most inspiring in your field?

Wobbrock: Given the convergence of innovative technology, policy and finance that is essential to our model, we’re inspired by all the social and environmental entrepreneurs who have brought to market social and environmental impact bonds in the education, criminal justice and water infrastructure spaces. Closer to home, our partners at the World Resources Institute and Encourage Capital as well as other path-bending groups like the Freshwater Trust and the Climate Trust continue to inspire us to develop the economic case for the FRB through market development and scientific innovation.

Water Deeply: What’s the one most important thing California should be doing right now to create a sustainable water future?

Wobbrock: Recognizing that what is good for our water supplies is also good for our communities, economy and the environment. If every Californian knew where their water came from – which watershed or national forest – there would be a greater appreciation to protect and restore these vital ecosystems.

Water Deeply: Looking out 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished on water issues?

Wobbrock: Ten years from now, I hope we see a flood of technology and financial innovation to improve our watersheds, groundwater use and irrigation efficiency. Integrated systems-level solutions that address water use and identify inefficiencies will make investing in water infrastructure – both green and gray infrastructure – more feasible. From our perspective, a failure to improve our watersheds is to the economic detriment of us all, so we intend to help empower stakeholders to make such investments possible.

More in Our Meet the Minds Series:

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