2016 Award Recipient

Elizabeth Martin

The Sierra Fund

Elizabeth Martin - The James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards Skip to content

Protecting One of California’s Most Precious Resources – Water

Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin loves the Sierra Nevada region she calls home. As CEO of The Sierra Fund, an organization dedicated to restoring the region, she’s also keenly aware of a hidden problem. Miles of mines abandoned since the 19th century gold rush are underfoot. Many leak toxic sediment into local waterways — the source of 60 percent of California’s water.

“Every Californian has a stake in addressing contamination in the Sierra Nevada. It’s an old problem with new urgency and new solutions,” she says. Hundreds of the 47,000 abandoned mines pose a particular challenge for local residents. Old mining techniques used mercury to extract gold from soil and rock. Today, mercury is considered a major contaminant of concern by the California Department of Public Health and the World Health Organization.

Martin has been a leader in creating awareness of this issue and identifying solutions, galvanizing a coalition of mining industry representatives, tribal communities, civic leaders, scientists, and physicians. Together, they have developed a process to help local property owners and managers identify and clean up contaminated areas.

Gold mines made people rich long ago. Today, water is the new gold, and we need an approach to conservation that recognizes how vital the Sierra Nevada region is to all of California.

Elizabeth Martin

The Sierra Fund is also working with the Nevada Irrigation District to pilot a technology that works like a washing machine to spin out mercury from Sierra mining pits. This equipment may also be used to clean sediment for safe dredging of reservoirs, increasing our capacity to store clean water. The organization has helped secure more than $90 million to improve water quality and support conservation in the region — but there is still much work to do.

“The good news is that we have the technical know-how to solve this problem. It will take time, investment, and political will,” says Martin.

Video by Talking Eyes Media

Elizabeth Martin

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The Sierra Fund


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The written profile and video reflect the work of the leader(s) the year they received a Leadership Award. Please contact the leader(s) for current information.