How We Approach Water Governance Matters

Governance is a fancy word for how we make decisions together, hold ourselves and others to account, give voice to diverse interests, and use power.

What does this have to do with watershed management? Quite a bit, it turns out. Current models of watershed governance put most of the decision making authority in the hands of federal, state and local governments, with minimal involvement in many cases, from the public. This approach was often effective from a regulatory standpoint. No one can argue with what has been accomplished because of federal, state and local water pollution regulations.

When speaking about nonpoint source (NPS) pollution, however, which is responsible for most of our remaining pollution problems, this top-down approach has its limitations. NPS pollution is so much more complex and ubiquitous, requiring a host of innovative approaches. In the past, little attention was given to how we govern watershed projects. This topic is getting more attention in the watershed management literature, and rightly so.

It was an interest in water governance that led a small group of people in Minnesota to test a Civic Governance model, developed by Peg Michels and Tony Massengale. We began to test the model in 2013 and it now includes a small number of water and natural resource organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The results have been encouraging. The test reveals that how one governs in a watershed context does matter. Applying democratic principles and practices intentionally and consistently makes a difference in the experience of those collaborating on a specific effort. The nonprofit sector has a significant role to play in governing watershed projects well.

Governance Is Important to How Nonprofit Organizations Manage Watershed Projects

Once, while sharing my interest in watershed governance with a colleague, she said to me enthusiastically, “Lynne, you need to meet a friend of mine. He heads up a small nonprofit organization called, Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates (MLR). I think he might be interested in what you are trying to do.” I agreed that it sounded like an important meeting and she helped me to make the connection.

During our initial meeting, Executive Director, Jeff Forester and I discovered that we shared similar views on what we believed were barriers to achieving positive  outcomes for water quality in our state. The conversation took us to the topic of policy making at the federal, state and local levels. He told me he was looking for more effective ways to get work done with diverse stakeholders, and to engage and involve the grassroots in work at the local level. I told him that I might have just the thing to accomplish that. As partners in the Midwest Active Citizenship Initiative, a group of colleagues and I were in the midst of testing this new approach to water governance, grounded in democratic principles and the role we all play as active citizens in protecting water quality.

Jeff is a high energy, passionate advocate for the health of Minnesota lakes and rivers. Much of his time has been spent at the State Legislature lobbying and advocating for lake and river issues for his 501(c)(4) organization. Like many others working to protect water quality, he expressed frustration with the current ways stakeholders were working together to protect water, and how this, in turn, made it difficult to positively influence efforts to protect lakes and rivers. Through subsequent conversations, he began to understand the vision and purpose of Civic Governance, and decided to take a leap of faith and learn more about it.

Soon, a colleague and I were meeting monthly with Jeff, providing him with training and encouragement. During the training, we asked him to begin applying it in baby steps within the context of his non-profit organization. We were already piloting the model within county government organizations (see my previous blog) and were interested in testing its efficacy within the environmental non-profit sector as well. The model’s strength, it seemed, was its flexibility in how it could be applied in organizations of all kinds.

The Outcomes

Working with Peg Michels of Civic Organizing, Inc., Jeff began to slowly integrate the Civic Governance model into his Board’s strategic planning activities and into his day-to-day interactions with the public and legislators. He began to use an organizing approach to his work by setting up numerous one-on-one conversations with stakeholders. In those meetings, he showed a willingness to listen by asking open-ended questions, and by setting a tone of collaboration and inclusion.

Through Jeff’s leadership, lake associations were encouraged to take greater responsibility for the future of their lakes. Stakeholder groups were involved in a way that ensured that all those impacted by a problem had a meaningful role in defining and solving that problem. He inspired groups to work more collaboratively together by setting an intention of developing solutions for the common good, rather than what might be good for one group or individual. In short, Jeff is working to bring a more democratic approach inside his organization and trying to model a new way for civic leaders to imagine their governing roles in protecting lakes and rivers. He would admit that it isn’t perfect, but that it is a good start.

The members of the MLR Civic Governance Initiative have developed a case study (click on the link below) that discusses the ways in which this model has transformed the way that one community-based organization governs itself and imagines its role in addressing public problems. While it is still a work in progress and not yet fully integrated, Jeff has documented how it has already improved the organization’s outcomes. MLR has increased its membership substantially and been a small beacon of hope for caring citizens and lake association leaders across Minnesota. Check out their story below.


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