Water security: applying nature-based solutions with MNR graduate Nancy Lilly
May 2, 2023
By Lindsay Kuczera
Nancy Lilly, a recent Master of Natural Resources (MNR) graduate, works as a program coordinator for the Resilient Watersheds strategy at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC is one of the largest conservation organizations in the world and is guided by a set of ambitious 2030 goals that include:
- Reduce or store 3 gigatons of CO2 emissions yearly
- Benefit 100M people by protecting and restoring natural habitats
- Conserve nearly 4B hectares of ocean
- Conserve 650M hectares of land
- Conserve 1M kilometers of rivers and 30M hectares of lakes and wetlands
- Support 45 million local stewards
This is a tall order. To achieve these goals within this incredibly critical decade, TNC has developed three pathways to halt climate change and biodiversity loss: Tackle Climate Change; Protect Lands, Waters, and Oceans; and Provide Food & Water. Nancy is part of the Provide team, which focuses on improving food and water security through the better management of working lands, waters, and oceans. The Resilient Watersheds strategy works to restore the health and resiliency of our watersheds by employing nature-based solutions (NbS)—like reforestation and regenerative agricultural practices—to improve water security, restore biodiversity, enhance communities’ ability to adapt to climate change, and promote equitable, inclusive development. They scale this approach by (1) demonstrating that NbS work on the ground through flagship programs around the world, (2) increasing investment in NbS and removing regulatory barriers for their adoption, and (3) equipping partners with the training, tools and technical support they need to replicate these solutions.
Combining past experience with new knowledge
“I would not have been able to articulate the problems and think about the ways that I anticipated working at TNC without having gone through the MNR program,” Nancy said. Before joining TNC, she was an outreach coordinator at a local water utility in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she worked on green infrastructure for stormwater management projects and community outreach. Nancy wanted to move into a role where she could make a bigger impact, and knew she would benefit from additional technical and theoretical training on sustainability and water management; this is when she found the MNR.
The MNR program offers an array of sustainability courses that Nancy was able to choose between. “I was glad that I could learn about a variety of complex topics. I could come out with a master’s degree that didn’t have to be specialized in any one area,” Nancy added. She outlined the courses that resonated the most with her: “Sustainability Systems—I think about that class almost every day; Infrastructure for Resilience—I look back on materials from that course fairly regularly; and Climate Adaptation—I’m working with the science team on a report about NbS and adaptation now.”
Adaptation and resilience are ideas that have taken center stage in the climate conversations in recent years, but some practitioners still say they are not yet well defined. Nancy and her team are working to better articulate what those concepts mean and how nature-based solutions can be implemented to address climate adaptation and water security challenges. “Those classes that I took simply because I was inherently interested in them have actually led really well into the work I’m currently doing,” Nancy said.
"We want to equip our students with the skills to be on the frontlines of climate responses, which is fundamental to long-term sustainability. Students like Nancy leave our program capable of identifying key climate vulnerabilities and, equally as important, formulating climate adaptation plans that will help ensure sustainability. Nancy is doing that, on the ground, while working for one of the most important conservation organizations in the world," said Paul Wagner, Professor of Practice and instructor in the Climate Adaptation course.
The global water crisis
When talking about a crisis as big as water security, it’s important to acknowledge that NbS is not a panacea, and multiple approaches must be combined to solve the problem, including demand-side interventions and traditional gray, technical solutions. “We push nature-based solutions for a myriad of reasons, not just because we’re The Nature Conservancy, but because they have a tremendous number of co-benefits, which include protecting biodiversity, increasing climate resilience for communities, and providing sustainable jobs, alongside protecting clean water,” said Nancy.
You may remember the 2018 water crisis in Cape Town which came close to "Day Zero"—a day when water taps would run dry. Thanks to strict water-use restrictions, Day Zero was narrowly avoided, but it alerted people to a very real crisis. Coming out of the drought, TNC worked alongside other stakeholders—including the Cape Town government—to create the Greater Cape Town Water Fund which focuses on removing water-guzzling invasive plants (eucalyptus and pine) that have been stealing the region’s limited water. The project is expected to return one-third of Cape Town’s annual water supply back into the system and restore the region’s native fynbos habitat, which is one of the rarest plant communities on Earth.
“What I like about nature-based solutions is they present an opportunity for creative problem-solving and are flexible enough to work in regions that have a diversity of enabling conditions,” said Nancy.
Job hunting? Be patient and flexible
When it comes to seeking job opportunities and interviewing at non-profits, Nancy emphasizes the need to be patient and flexible. The interview process can often take months, even at large, well-resourced organizations. Staying connected and following up is good to stay top-of-mind and show the hiring team your continued interest. Flexibility is also valuable in a non-profit environment, where you’re often pulled into different projects that you may not have experience or knowledge about. Nancy indicated that “This is how you learn quickly and grow in the field.”
Nancy Lilly has been a part of working watershed systems for over 10 years: as a regulator, educator, recreational facilitator, and most recently, conservator. It is in these places, where nature and people depend on each other, where “win-win” solutions for the future have captured her attention. You can also often find her and her dog Junie deep in the Appalachian forests enjoying all the biodiversity they have to offer.