Spotlight - Community-Based Watershed Organizations Working For Positive Local Outcomes
Community-based watershed organizations are locally-based groups of volunteers who are committed to improving water quality in a specific watershed.
Participants are usually a mix of local leaders, agency representatives, and private citizens who live in or have a personal connection to the watershed. A research project conducted in 2002 identified more than 500 community-based watershed organizations in Pennsylvania!
These organizations primarily identify environmental outcomes as their goals, but it is equally important to recognize the benefits they can have for their communities. Here we summarize some of the main impacts of community watershed organizations identified in that research project:
-- Improving Ecosystem Health: Measuring a group’s direct impact on water quality can be difficult, due to a time lag between actions taken by the group and the measurement of change in water quality. However, over time, watershed groups can improve water quality, particularly related to remediation of acid mine drainage.
The completion of projects that are likely to lead to environmental improvements are also important outcomes, such as installation of systems to treat runoff from abandoned mines, cost-sharing and volunteer installation of agricultural best management practices such as streambank fencing or riparian buffers, wetland construction, streambank stabilization, and clean-up of illegal dumps.
-- Monitoring: Community watershed groups can become ‘watchdogs’. In some cases, members investigate and report environmental violations to regulatory agencies; in others, local residents report observed illegal activity to the watershed organization. The presence of the watershed organization can push others to monitor their own behavior and report problems to regulatory agencies.
-- Environmental Education: Community watershed groups work to improve individual knowledge of and behavior in the watershed. For example, some groups educate boaters on techniques to prevent the spread of invasive species; others teach farmers new management strategies to minimize sediment and nutrient loss. Most groups hold educational events (presentations, hikes, fishing workshops, stream clean-ups, canoe trips, etc.) that teach about the resource and its history.
-- Youth education: Most groups focus on future resource users, children. They work through the school districts to provide curriculum and youth service opportunities as well as through youth organizations (such as scouts). Projects such as monitoring can have profound impacts on all participants.
-- Building individual capacity: Leaders of community watershed groups gain significant knowledge of the resource and the scientific processes related to water. As a result, they have become experts on the local environment and assets to their communities. Leaders also gain key leadership skills, such as communication, negotiation, partnership development, and political advocacy.
They also expand their personal networks that offer social support and friendship – essential to creating a feeling of belonging within a community – as well as networks of people they can mobilize when needed for watershed action or other community work.
-- Building CWO capacity: Strengthening the organization so that it can survive and thrive into the future should be recognized as an accomplishment. For example, organizations work to improve their membership base, leadership skills, or organizational management (financial reporting, etc.). Community watershed groups have been critical for developing other watershed groups or regional partnerships that can have impacts across a broader area or multiple issues.
-- Building community capacity: Community watershed organizations are especially important for developing relationships with organizations across the community, region, and state. These relationships are essential for facilitating discussion of local environmental problems that can lead to collaborative solutions, prioritization of environmental projects, and stakeholder groups that can successfully attract funding. Community watershed organization leaders also become skilled volunteers on government boards, committees, and advisory groups.
-- Building Political Capacity: As a result of their level of organization, their activities, and their non-confrontational tactics, some community watershed groups can affect local politics and decision-making. Watershed groups are organized forces that can generate publicity through letter-writing and phone campaigns, and create public discussion of an environmental issue.
Community watershed organizations can have profoundly positive impacts on the ecosystem and the surrounding community; both types of impacts need to be recognized and celebrated.
For more information, visit Penn State's Watershed Winds Newsletter webpage.
A copy of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania profile of watershed groups is available online.
(Written by: Kathryn Brasier, Assistant Professor, Rural Sociology, Penn State University)
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