The Partners Adapt November Newsreel: a big month for water partnership and collaboration!

As we near the end of the UN’s proclaimed International Year of Water Cooperation, some exciting new reports and entities, working across several geographic scales, have been in the news. Here are a few that hit my inbox over the last few weeks…

New report on the interdependence of water and peace

The Strategic Foresight Group released a report this week entitled “Water Cooperation for a Secure World – Focus on the Middle East,” highlighting evidence that nations engaged in cooperation over water issues do not go to war. The report also introduced the concept of a  Water Cooperation Quotient, measuring the effectiveness and intensity of transboundary cooperation in factors including “sustained institutions of transboundary cooperation; joint investment programs; collective management of water-related infrastructure; a system for regularly and jointly monitoring water flows together with a shared vision for the best allocation of water resources between agriculture and other sectors; and a forum for frequent interaction between top decision-makers.”

Visit The Daily Star Lebanon New’s article or download the report to read more. And for more evidence of the interdependence of water and peaceful cooperation, be sure to check out Dr. Aaron Wolf’s landmark research on the subject.

New UNESCO center for transboundary water research

The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) has agreed to be the first UNESCO center focusing on diffusing transboundary water disputes.  SIWI will strive to increase cooperation and assist in regions where water conflict is most likely to lead to war, and will “concentrate on how to establish and develop effective water partnerships despite contexts of political conflict.”

Check out the announcement in Bloomberg news and the full press release from SIWI.

New U.S. interagency partnership to promote drought resilience

On November 15, 2013, the Obama Administration announced a new National Drought Resilience Partnership to help communities better prepare for future droughts and reduce the impact of drought events on livelihoods and the economy. As a collaborative effort between seven agencies, “the Partnership aims to align Federal drought polices across the government and help communities manage the impact of drought by linking information (monitoring, forecasts, outlooks, and early warnings) with drought preparedness and long-term resilience strategies in critical sectors such as agriculture, municipal water systems, energy, recreation, tourism and transportation.” Partnership agencies include NOAA, UDSA, Department of the Interior, Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, EPA, and Department of Energy.

 The announcement and partnership website can be found here.
 

New state-wide group to support collaboration amongst Vermont watershed organizations

Battenkill River in Arlington VT. Credit Gplefka/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Battenkill River in Arlington VT.
Credit Gplefka/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The formation of a new group called Watersheds United Vermont was announced in early November. The group will increase the communication and coordination of the more than 30 watershed organizations across the state that work on similar initiatives (such as water quality monitoring and education or outreach) by providing a platform for them “to learn from each other, to bring up the capacity of [smaller groups], and to cross-pollinate great ideas” about watershed-based efforts. This will help many of them that are working under limited resources to achieve project goals previously unmet.

Go here to see the North Country News article on Watersheds United Vermont and listen to the WAMU radio clip about it.

 

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A tale of two towns regionalizing water services, and why the public should weigh in

Here’s an example in the news this week of regional water partnership, in its most common form (that is, at a local scale): Two towns in coastal New Hampshire – Exeter and Stratham – are considering an intermunicipal water and sewer system. Stratham, currently without town water and sewer services, would connect to Exeter’s system, allowing the two to pursue new infrastructure together.

Squamscott River, Exeter, NH (Photo credit: sskennel via Flickr Creative Commons)

Squamscott River, Exeter, NH
(Photo credit: sskennel via Flickr Creative Commons)

Proposals for exactly what the partnership agreement would look like are still in draft form, but on table is an arrangement wherein Stratham would pay Exeter somewhere between $8 and $12 million over a 20-year period to receive water services. This would mean its citizens would no longer have to rely on their own wells and septic systems, the latter of which presents a significant threat to local water quality when they fail. Exeter, considering a $40 million upgrade to its wastewater treatment plant, would benefit by sharing the cost burden.

This is a very important decision for these two towns, from both an economic and water security perspective. The end results would be better drinking water quality and better treated wastewater for the area, which means not only enhanced public health conditions, but a healthier surrounding ecosystem as well. And for coastal towns like these, avoiding wastewater issues means protecting the local shellfishing and recreational boating industries.

There are many towns across the U.S. facing this same decision, and this example is just one among a growing trend in regional approaches to drinking and wastewater services. This is because regionalization can create great efficiencies by leveraging economies-of-scale. For smaller communities facing resource constraints, this is particularly important. Most systems in smaller towns struggle to generate enough funds from their customers to cover the overhead costs just to keep running. Alternatively, increased revenue from a larger, combined rate-payer base can be put towards infrastructure upgrades (like in this case), but also other efforts such as ensuring compliance with drinking water or wastewater standards, ramping up conservation programs, and installing response systems for extreme events. It’s no surprise that the U.S.EPA and USDA encourage regionalization as a solution to a variety of water system challenges, especially in small communities.

What I find most interesting about the case of Exeter and Stratham — and why I chose to write about it here — is this: an editorial piece pleading for greater public involvement in the decision process. The editorialist writes:

While we know officials from both towns are working hard to go over the potential pros and cons of an arrangement and iron out all the details, feedback from the public could add a lot to the conversation….An agreement where Stratham buys water and sewer from Exeter would be a major step in terms of the regionalization of services, which could potentially be a win-win. But, regionalization is still a somewhat new concept that can be concerning to some. That’s another reason why it’s important to have a public process.

The writer suggests a public meeting dedicated to the issue “where residents from both towns can ask questions or express opinions.”

Yes! Yes yes yes! I could not agree more. Generating public buy-in and support through public outreach is essential to a successful partnership, and the absence of it can be a significant barrier to regionalization in the first place. I certainly found this to be the case in my research on the Oregon Coast. Let’s not forget that it’s the public who ultimately votes on bond measures to fund water infrastructure projects, and who elects (or chooses to not re-elect) city officials in charge of infrastructure decisions and project implementation. More importantly, as pointed out by the writer of this op-ed, involving the community at large brings a broader diversity of perspectives, expertise, and local knowledge to the process, which could raise concerns or ideas perhaps not considered by the individuals navigating the partnership negotiations. Sure, public meetings can be messy, but so is democracy. When the process is designed well (i.e. by professional public involvement specialists), it can be highly organized and productive.

As I’ve heard from professionals in this field, we are experiencing a paradigm shift in public administration, in which more and more decision-makers are recognizing the importance, and the value, of engaging stakeholders traditionally disenfranchised from decision-making. As such, we are seeing that public involvement and stakeholder engagement processes are increasingly being used in local water resource management and decision-making to help identify community-supported solutions to water resource issues. Good news for us interested in this stuff.

So YES, Exeter and Stratham, hold that public meeting, and see what new ideas come out of it.

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Here’s the op-ed, dated November 1, 2013.

For more examples of regionalization like this, check out this EPA report, “Gaining Operational and Managerial Efficiencies Through Water System Partnerships.”

Steering towards flood resilience with consensus-building: stakeholder facilitation and the case of the Chehalis River Basin

Next week, I’ll be at the American Water Resources Association (AWRA)’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon participating in a panel discussion on proactive flood and drought management in the United States.  I was contracted earlier this year to write the corresponding AWRA report (shameless plug alert!) profiling case studies of innovative flood and drought responses. This was a great opportunity for me to become familiar with some of the best models of water resources management across the country — real communities and regions doing it right — and a primary goal of the report is to provide examples of success that other vulnerable communities and management agencies can turn to for ideas in mitigating future water resource disasters.

As became apparent in learning more about these case studies, successful flood and drought management approaches require the coordination of a multitude of diverse entities and interests, including local, state, and federal agencies, and sometimes even competing stakeholder groups. More strikingly than any other, the history of the Chehalis River Basin teaches us about the critical importance of equitable and thoughtful process engaging these diverse entities and stakeholders in designing a comprehensive and effective mitigation strategy.

The Chehalis River Basin (Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012)

The Chehalis River Basin (Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012)

The Chehalis River Basin is an area spanning three counties, seven cities, and two federally-recognized tribal reservations in southwestern Washington State. In December 2007, the upper half of the Chehalis River flooded to a record high, shutting down portions of I-5, devastating homes, farms, and businesses, and creating $938 million in economic damages. Fourteen months later, in January 2009, it happened again: the second largest flood event on record occurred along the mainstem.

It’s not that this kind of severe flooding caught the region off guard; flooding occurs frequently in the Chehalis. In fact, since 1945, more than 800 feasibility studies exploring different structural flood mitigation approaches were conducted to address frequent flood events in the basin. Due to strong political differences and a lack of consensus on what mitigation measures to pursue, however, Chehalis-area leaders have been left for the past 80 years without a comprehensive strategy for mitigating outcomes like those suffered in the 2007 flood. Central to the decades-long debate was whether or not to install large water-retaining infrastructure, which could decimate  the basin’s salmon stocks — of great cultural and economic importance to the region’s tribes and recreational fishing industry.

Incited by these consecutive flood events to ensure concrete actions towards address the region’s vulnerability, state officials contracted the William D. Ruckelshaus Center (a collaborative policy and dispute resolution group,  jointly run by Washington State University and the University of Washington) to lead an independent review of flood mitigation alternatives. The Center facilitated conversations over the course of nine months between technical experts and basin leaders — including representatives from local cities, counties, agricultural industry, and tribes.  The result has been a broad consensus amongst these historically opposed stakeholders on the effects of flooding, the potential for various project alternatives  — not just a large dam — to reduce flood damage, and the necessity of pursuing a basin-wide approach.  A small work group, charged with recommending mitigation alternatives, has agreed that enhancement of aquatic species, particularly salmon runs, needs to be equal to flood damage reduction in the flood mitigation framework. Their recommendations include a suite of large-scale projects AND ecological enhancements through restoration and land use management in the floodplain.

Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012

Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012

While the process of evaluating the costs, benefits, and feasibility of mitigation alternatives is still underway, there is arguably more momentum then ever in getting Chehalis River Basin flood mitigation projects funded and rolled out. It is clear that integration of a third-party facilitator, establishing broad support for management decisions and identifying a shared vision for the basin across historic opponents,  was central in this shifting of gears. Other regions rife with conflict and political stalling over water management options have much to learn from this case history, and could avoid potential the economic and psychological damages of flood (and other water resource challenges) by turning to facilitated collaborative decision-making processes.

Check out the Chehalis River Basin case study and the full AWRA report, “Case Studies in Proactive Flood and Drought Management,” released August 2013, and the December 2012 William D. Ruckelshaus Center report on flood mitigation alternatives in the Chehalis.

Pending talks on Ethiopia’s Super Dam, or Why transboundary water transcends geographic scale

Image

Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia
(Photo courtesy of Jialiang Gao via Wikicommon’s Creative Commons)

I like to think of transboundary water conflict and cooperation as something that occurs at all scales. While traditionally applied to the study of international basins, I think the discourse can also be useful in understanding intra-national, regional, and even sub-regional contexts, all of which exists across political and jurisdictional boundaries.

But let’s be respectful of tradition and start off our exploration of transboundary water conflict and cooperation with a timely international example. Today’s Circle of Blue newsletter features a piece by Joanne Yao on possible negotiations between Egypt and its upstream neighbor and Nile River-buddy Ethiopia. Since 2011, Ethiopia has been constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), one of the largest hydropower projects in the world. Its leaders hope it will incite a huge political and economic boom for the country. Egypt, on the other hand, is not as excited about the mega dam. It relies on the Nile for roughly 95 percent of its water supply and is worried about possible decreases in streamflow caused by the project. Thus far, the two countries have failed to enter into official negotiations to come to an agreement that would leave both feeling more secure.

This story is a familiar one, as all across the developing world more and more dams on internationally-flowing rivers are being built to accommodate a growing need for power generation and water for irrigation. As Yao writes,  a diplomatic strategy, designed to manage disagreements and ease tensions between these two countries, could “demonstrate how shared river resources have the potential to foster cooperation rather than confrontation.” So far, the opportunity is a missed one.

Both countries have shown past diplomatic efforts in the region’s battle for water security, however. Egypt has previously participated in the Nile Basin Initiative, a platform for discussing cooperation in the Nile River Basin established in 1999. Ethiopia is one of 10 signatories to the “Entebbe Agreement,” the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile Basin (an agreement that Egypt will not sign without some key modifications). Yet on the topic of the Renaissance Dam, the two have yet to sit down and hash out their differences.

Yao notes that there is ample misinterpretation and misunderstanding surrounding the Nile’s flows and historical agreements, largely at the hands of false media reporting (and my sources suggest that she too is furthering this tradition…sorry Yao).  A “lack of shared knowledge” has fueled political mistrust and fear.

 “Rather… if the countries work together to identify development opportunities, including agreeing on operating rules for filling and managing the new GERD and any other future dams, this would minimize the harm and maximize the benefits for all.”

Of course, only time will tell what kind of diplomacy is in store for these countries, but Yao is optimistic that cooperation remains a real possibility. And I am too. As my former professor and transboundary water superstar Aaron Wolf teaches us, we have history to back us up! The thing that is certain now, however, is that these very themes — of mistrust, of currently unmet potential to identify opportunities to maximize benefits for all, of the lack of collaboration leaving would-be partners more vulnerable in the face of uncertain outcomes  — prevailed in my research of very small  communities and drinking water systems along  the Oregon Coast. The challenges we as humans face in governing water transcend geographic scale.

Read Yao’s  article here, and check out fellow OSU graduate student Jen Veilleux’s blog, all about her PhD research on this topic.

Welcome

Welcome to my new blog, Partners Adapt! In this space, I’ll be exploring themes of STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT, REGIONAL PARTNERSHIPS, and TRANSBOUNDARY COLLABORATION in securing water resources around the world. Feel free to consider this a place for open discourse, and thanks for stopping by!