A Neighborhood Approach to Watershed Planning (Think Globally, Act Locally)

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by Butch Clark

Successful watershed planning is very difficult. Watershed planning involves decisions about who gets what, or resource allocations, and it can quickly become very contentious. The decisions often have implications now and far into the future. Available and useable water resources, or the “pie,” appear to be shrinking. Watershed planning deals with “wicked”, “nasty,” or “ornery” problems. Such problems arise from tangled interactions of technology, culture, and resource limitations. What comes from the bottom of a watershed reflects integration of all that has and is happening within it. Trying to deal with just one water issue by itself is like touching a strand of a spider’s web — one touch and whole interconnected web seems to shake and buzz.

Lots of tool kits have appeared in the past few years to help those who undertake watershed planning. Many organizations offer exceptional training programs. Much financial assistance is available to help. There are even several major studies and reports of conference proceedings which share the experiences of groups — achievements, “how-to’s”, lessons learned, and mistakes hopefully not be repeated. Yet, despite all the many resources, it is easy to get lost in the complexities of watershed planning.

Across the world, conflicts and competition over water resources appear to be growing rapidly. Watershed planning seems to offer the most promise towards coping with these challenges. However, the first task is often creating individual interest in undertaking such a difficult task. A second task is nurturing that interest from what starts as a very local neighborhood recognition of apparent water problems to tackling what amounts seemingly to everything. The goal is reaching workable solutions.

Often the geographic area of a watershed is large. Physically, it can be very diverse. It can cross geographic-political boundaries and include a great diversity of economic and cultural interests. By contrast, a neighborhood stream reach is a more familiar place to start. The area is smaller, accessible, more visible and visit-able, and usually has less diversity among immediate interests with a stake. The “neighborhood” means those most directly affected — such as those actually living on the land along side a stream. It can also include others who frequently fish or boat on a reach of stream and others such as walkers or bikers, perhaps with a dog or two, each day along a riverwalk or trail. It includes also those who have “adopted” a stream reach as a part of a community river clean-up effort. In short, the neighborhood is composed of all who have given their time and interest towards becoming familiar with stream reach.

From this neighborhood familiarity comes caring. From familiarity and caring comes quick recognition and concern when things are not “right” with a stream reach. A part of successful watershed planning is encouraging and providing opportunities for expression of that neighborhood concern in a manner that connects the neighborhood to the watershed. The motivation to express a local concern, of an individual or one shared by a neighborhood, can then become the foundation for participation and sustaining of a much broader watershed planning effort.

Often expression of concern may not reflect a real problem. However, the expression is a valuable opportunity for sharing information, providing education, and encouraging involvement. At other times the expression of concern can be an early warning signal. This is a form of “neighborhood watch,” perhaps even equivalent to a proverbial miner’s canary. Initial contact and involvement is simply providing a good listening ear, perhaps helping with suggestions for initial monitoring such as recording dates and times of occurrences and taking some photographs. Sometimes the expression of concern offers an opportunity to learn from the neighborhood.

For watershed planning efforts, an important task is finding how best to translate neighborhood awareness into a commitment toward developing and implementing effective watershed policies. Basically, this process is neither top-down or bottom-up, but may best be characterized as a sharing of insight. For example, the prolonged drought is certainly promoting much discussion of water related issues. Most probably those discussions will become increasingly heated and decision making more contentious. New ways of thinking about water resource management are needed. Neighborhoods can be initial sounding boards for a diversity of social solutions for water efficiency and demand management.

Neighborhoods can also provide needed background information for interpreting the local social context within which watershed planning occurs. Examples are the nature of local social infrastructure, the significance and vulnerabilities of local institutions, the scope of economic diversity, and the spatial location of local major sub-cultures. The neighborhood often has such valued expertise of context. Then it can give perspective upon integrated analysis of risks, tradeoffs, and distributions of benefits. This too can be very challenging.

The integrity of streamside neighborhoods depends upon maintaining the integrity of associated water resources and the flora and fauna. The neighborhoods have developed from, and depend upon, these relationships. Locally derived neighborhood solutions can re-integrate water use and environmental health. Another major task for watershed planning is insuring that the sum of neighborhood actions in turn makes sense across the much broader scope of the watershed.

Finally, monitoring of stream conditions across a watershed can be expensive in terms of both resources and time. Neighborhoods offer needed resources for monitoring, such as people willing to be out along their stream reach to gather data. Very often a neighborhood may have a very immediate stake in the situation. Then it can be a source of matching funds in a larger watershed effort. However, the neighborhood may consequently have very strong interests in securing timely achievement of tangible results.

Underlying watershed planning is the necessity for commitment — to sharing concerns and information, to open communication, to enduring the effort, and (more evident recently) to re-examining conventional wisdom and to accepting uncertainties about outcomes. All this is not easy. Proximity of a neighborhood to its stream reach can initiate support for the difficult task of watershed planning and make the experience a rewarding one of discovery and learning. It can also become an experience which changes attitudes, perceptions, values and also interpersonal and inter-organizational relationships.

Much has been written about watershed planning. However, not much attention has been given to initially starting the task. Now is the time to help neighborhoods not become lost in the larger, more remote, and more complex process of watershed planning. The neighborhoods are most immediately and physically close to so many watershed problems.

References that might be helpful:

Brown, L. R.
2003. Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, Earth Policy Institute, W. W. Norton and Co., New York, 285 pages.
Folliott, P. F., Baker, M. B. Jr., Edminster, C. B. and others as Tech. Coords.
2000. Land Stewardship in the 21st Century: The Contributions of Watershed Management, Conference Proceedings from Tucson, Arizona, March 13 – 16, 2000, Proceedings RMRS-P-13, U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, Colorado, 438 pages.
Fukuyama, F.
2004. State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 137 pages.
Ward, C.
2004. Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land, Island Press-Shearwater Books, Washington D. C., 350 pages.