Participation in Watershed Planning


by Butch Clark

Legislative activity beneath Colorado’s Golden Dome is fast paced and difficult to track, especially from a distance and in a quarterly newsletter. However, for members of CRA, one bill may be of particular interest. This is House Bill 1050. It was submitted by Colorado Representative Matt Smith and Colorado Senator Ginette “Gigi” Dennis. H. B. 1050 is another try at the very tough and very sensitive task of establishing a water resources planning and development process in Colorado.

By now the amended bill has been much discussed beneath the Dome and elsewhere. Most thoughts expressed so far reflect almost a decade of legislative attempts and numerous studies on how to go about this difficult task. CRA is not political. However, members are likely to have more interest and knowledge about water issues than most people. We can expect to be asked to participate in water resources planning — locally, basin wide, regionally, statewide, and at even broader geographic scales.

Planning for water is a tough task. Water means so much — physically, economically, and socially — to so many, in so many ways. It moves around and it can be moved. Water is used and reused both concurrently and sequentially. It is renewable but finite; often it’s both a blessing and a curse. How CRA members can best contribute to water resources planning requires some thinking.

Recent discussions of H. B 1050 suggested some topics. First is the approach. Generally watershed planning is in favor but is very demanding. Ideally the effort is described as integrated and holistic. Its focus is not on areas having usually arbitrary political boundaries but instead on drainage basins or watersheds. This recognizes that geographic basins are often also “problemsheds.” As water flows downward through a basin, it tends to reflect all that has and is happening within it. Everyone in a basin shares the problems and also shares responsibilities for solutions. However, people move frequently. Shared and shed responsibilities can be difficult to pin down.

Considerations for watershed planning process can be grouped into where, who, how, what. Even defining a basin is difficult — where are reasonable boundaries?, how big should the basin be?, can folks at the headwaters meet often enough with those downstream? Can problems be forgotten once they flow by to a downstream state?

Watershed planning often arises from local frustration. It deals with tough interconnected problems simply not being addressed by those having a single interest or a legal responsibility or often by those simply sending the problems downstream.

Considerations about “who” often revolve around representation. Who represents whom? Must participants be appointed or legitimized in some way or can they be self-appointed by simply turning up?

Then come considerations for who will the process commit to a decision or to taking an action? The very tough tangled problems are the ones now being passed downward for solution at the local level. Who at the local level wants to pick up such challenges? Will everyone that needs to participate, for example as stakeholders, actually do so, or be able to do so?

National- and state-level programs try to create new local citizen awareness and then an interest in dealing with water issues. Such programs try to encourage and promote informed citizen action and often these programs do provide data and financial resources to citizen groups. Many private sector programs do the same. An objective of these programs is to build constituencies at the local level and beyond. Sometimes this effort is not appreciated by local decision makers. Often the people targeted by these water related programs are already targeted by other programs.

Very often the people are already busy. Offering new opportunities to struggle with how to allocate stream flows or pollution loadings isn’t as appealing, or necessary, in their lives as family, work, and desire for a little time to relax.

Considerations about “how” relate to process. They often begin with how the limited seats at the table are arranged and who sponsors and controls the proceedings. Some participants may be paid to be present and some not. How is information distributed and to whom? Some participants have supporting experts and staff — others may have none of this. How are decisions in the process made — by majority vote, by consensus, by just someone’s willingness to do or pay for something, or …? Are the decisions coming out of the process “real” decisions leading to action or are they simply advice to someone, somewhere else? The lives of potential participants are often busy. Is becoming involved and the experience of watershed planning going to be worth the effort, costs, and frustrations?

Differences of perception are a source for many considerations. These are grouped around “what” a watershed planning process can deal with. Colorado law and institutions presently make it difficult for a planning effort to work with both water quantity and water quality at the same time. Perceptions, laws, traditions, and personalities define many other boundaries to the process. Some may see the process as a “win-lose” confrontation for their interests. Negotiation and compromise often can mean neither side gets what it wants but both settle for much less than half their potential gain. If everyone is unhappy, must the solution be a good one? Far too often the perceived win-win solutions are simply made at the expense of stakeholders not at the table, especially those without a human voice. These and other considerations must somehow be addressed.

Participation by CRA members in watershed planning offers opportunities, whether the process is prompted by legislation such as H. B. 1050 or for other reasons. CRA members have so much to offer. With encouragement the process can be made flexible in its rules. Perhaps it can admit any who are committed to learning, sharing, and building a better understanding of their watershed, of water resources, of change, and of choices.

By looking forward creatively, and often outside the boundaries imposed by laws, institutions, and tradition, participants can discover new ways for cooperation. They can discover ways to do more with less. Sustainability can be added to plans for natural systems and to plans for local communities and economies. Watershed planning arose from a reaction to what was not working. Within this process CRA members, as individual participants, can step out in front of the necessity for change and bring forward thoughtful and elegant solutions for even the toughest problems.