February 2011, Vol. 23, No.2


Water management in the collaborative mode

G. Tracy Mehan III

Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University (Bloomington), who in 2009 became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, has done pioneering research on collaborative approaches to resources management around the world. In her 1990 book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, she demonstrated that user management of fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, in many countries and cultures, is able to establish norms of behavior, sophisticated rules for decision-making, and even enforcement mechanisms.

Ostrom points out that governing the commons requires elaborate conventions over who can use resources and when. Everyone has to have some say in the rules. People pay attention to monitoring abuses and conflict resolution, less to sanctions and punishment.

Yet scale matters, be it geographic, demographic, or industrial. At some point — and the United States is way past it — there is a need to resort to government regulation at whatever level common sense, federalism, and the principle of subsidiarity deem appropriate. That said, the bigger the challenge, the harder government must work to avoid becoming too big to fail, too much an end in itself, and too removed from the people whom it serves and the resources it is supposed to manage and protect.

This is not just a matter of managing our water and land resources, as important as that is. The real challenge is that of “managing ourselves,” to adopt a phrase of Richard N.L. Andrews of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). According to professor Andrews in his 2006 book Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy, “environmental issues are issues not just of science or economics but of governance.”

I include in this category of governance partnerships that encompass not-for-profit activity by land trusts and watershed organizations, and public–private partnerships, which can limit the need for or facilitate effective implementation of regulatory regimes or other governmental objectives.

Americans have a knack for this kind of thing. In his 1835 masterpiece Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville reported on his observations of the American scene after an extensive tour of the new republic:


Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Whenever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.


Tocqueville saw voluntary, intermediate associations mediating between individuals and government even in early 19th century America.

Voluntarism and collaboration are strengths that water managers in and out of government need to draw upon to implement robust, cost-effective watershed management.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is a leader in collaborative watershed governance to address urban wet weather issues, and its long-term success may depend on a new voluntary association with a life of its own.

MMSD provides wastewater and flood management services to 1.1 million customers in 28 communities, serving 1065 km2 (411 mi2) on the shore of Lake Michigan. To combat combined sewer overflows (CSOs), MMSD invested $3 billion in “gray” infrastructure, i.e., underground deep tunnels to hold overflows for treatment after a storm event has subsided. It is currently finishing another $1 billion investment.

MMSD had experienced 50 to 60 overflows per year, with an annual average volume of 30 million to 34 million m3 (8 billion to 9 billion gal) of overflow. Today, it has only two overflows per year, with an annual average of 4 million m3 (1 billion gal) of overflow.

Currently, 37% of the annual bacteria load comes from rural nonpoint sources, and 56% comes from urban stormwater, eclipsing CSOs as the main obstacle to further gains in water quality. Beach closings still occur after significant storm events.

University of Wisconsin (Madison) researchers are predicting that extreme precipitation events will become much stronger in southern Wisconsin due to climate change and variability. CSO events, with resultant overflows into Lake Michigan, are expected to rise by 50% to 120% by the end of this century.

MMSD decided to pursue a collaborative approach, focusing on flow reduction coming from stormwater and nonpoint sources, which are either insufficiently regulated or not regulated at all. It also is developing watershed restoration plans for its six subwatersheds. Ultimately, it hopes to incorporate at least some of these areas into a watershed-based permit to control all point and nonpoint sources across numerous municipal jurisdictions.

MMSD is promoting watershed-based, distributed “green” infrastructure approaches, such as disconnection of downspouts; use of rain barrels, vegetated swales, and cisterns; installation of green roofs and urban reforestation to supplement gray infrastructure and reduce flow through infiltration; and retention and evapotranspiration at the site level. The utility has documented capital cost savings from pursuing this approach.

MMSD is working with the Conservation Fund (Arlington, Va.), one of the largest land conservancies in the nation, to buy and restore floodplains to reduce flooding and stormwater flows. This “Greenseams” program has acquired more than 810 ha (2000 ac) since 2002 and identified a total of 6070 ha (15,000 ac) for purchase. MMSD has spent $13.4 million from its capital improvements budget and also has received some grants for the program.

Kevin Shafer, executive director of MMSD, came to realize that suburban communities, business, agriculture, environmental groups, universities, and other stakeholders must be brought into the watershed process if the goal of transforming the landscape, in both its urban and rural aspects, was to be attained.

Shafer identified Chicago Wilderness (Chicago) as a prototype of the kind of collaborative model MMSD needed to engage the larger community, including numerous local jurisdictions with a particular interest in stormwater compliance.

Chicago Wilderness is an alliance of organizations interested in protecting and restoring biodiversity in urban, suburban, and rural areas in and around the Chicago metropolitan region. With its more than 240 members, this organization seeks to raise awareness and knowledge about nature, healthy ecosystems, and biological resources, especially prairie landscapes; increase public participation and stewardship; build alliances among diverse constituencies; and facilitate applied natural and social science research, best management practices, and the sharing of information.

After an extended, facilitated process of consultation and deliberation among interested stakeholders, enabled by funding from a local foundation, something like consensus was achieved on the design of a new entity akin to Chicago Wilderness: the Southeast Wisconsin Watershed Trust (SWWT; Milwaukee), popularly known as the “Sweet Water Trust.” Formed in 2008, it sought to focus on “integrated water resources management” across political boundaries and engage in “second level planning” to fulfill the regional plan previously developed and in conjunction with the individual watershed restoration plans to be undertaken in each subwatershed.

SWWT aims to “[f]orge and strengthen relationships to leverage funding and recommend policies to assist in the implementation of projects to produce lasting water resource benefits and cost savings throughout the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds and nearshore Lake Michigan,” according to its Web site. Another purpose is “[t]o build partnerships and enhance collaborative decision-making and joint project implementation engaging government, business, the building industry, agriculture, environmental, and other stakeholder organizations to obtain broad agreement and recommend where to invest funds to get the greatest benefit.”

SWWT is hiring staff and has received a $1.9 million grant from the Joyce Foundation (Chicago). It also convenes a well-attended annual conference.

The Great Rivers Land Trust (GRLT; Alton, Ill.) focuses on preserving open space and habitat in the Mississippi watershed north of St. Louis. GRLT has for many years implemented the Piasa Creek Watershed Project to reduce sediment in the 31,600-ha (78,000-ac) watershed, providing stormwater control, reduction of flash flooding, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, and protection of sensitive ecosystems.

Since the 1990s, GRLT has partnered with the American Farmland Trust (Washington, D.C.) to develop watershed plans, drawing in numerous and varied stakeholders in the process. After the floods of 1993 on the Mississippi River, the local water company Illinois American Water (Belleville) wanted to relocate its water treatment plant to the top of a nearby hill. The new water quality permit would not allow for discharge of sediments back to the Mississippi. It looked as if the company would have to spend a lot of money to build treatment lagoons and ship sediment to offsite landfills.

Illinois American Water offered to fund GRLT’s Piasa Creek Watershed Plan in order to maintain the previous permit conditions with regard to sediment. In effect, it was proposing a point–nonpoint source trading program to take advantage of the control-cost differentials between sources.

With the approval of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, GRLT and Illinois American Water signed an agreement for a $4.1 million, 10-year project to reduce sedimentation in the Piasa Creek Watershed by approximately 6000 Mg/yr (6600 ton/yr) by the end of the contractual agreement. This agreement assumed a 2:1 ratio, double what the company was estimated to discharge during this time period.

GRLT formed another partnership with the local soil and water conservation district for implementation of a variety of practices among farmers in the area. GRLT has met and exceeded all of its goals for the Piasa Creek Watershed Project.

Lewis and Clark Community College (Godfrey, Ill.) manages a sediment-monitoring station and shares the cost with the U.S. Geological Survey.

These examples reveal a rich, complex mosaic of public, private, and not-for-profit players in the watershed game. Form follows function. These collaborations address myriad land-based issues implicating a host of actors — local governments, farmers, transportation departments, and real estate developers.

The watershed — gravity, land, and water — is the core integrating principle. Yet, again, in order to manage it, we must manage ourselves. So, it is necessary as well to reinvent the watershed as a social reality.

In his essay “The Sense of Place,” Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner claimed that “a place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it — have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation.

“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for,” Stegner said. “Only in the act of submission is the sense of place realized and a sustainable relationship between people and earth established.”

Our sense of place in our watersheds can only be expressed in the collaborative mode along the horizontal axis, extending throughout our local communities, and the vertical axis of government at all levels.


G. Tracy Mehan III is a principal at The Cadmus Group Inc. (Arlington, Va.) and former assistant administrator for Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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