Arriving at a National Water Strategy: The Role of Pathfinders in Water Resource Collaboration

Patrick S. McGinnis
Authored by: Patrick S. McGinnis, Water Resources Team Leader, THG

March 21, 2010

I. Moving from a Shared Vision to Scalable Results and Outcomes

Arriving at a National Water Strategy that successfully integrates water resource management across water sectors and across watersheds will benefit greatly in the beginning by accounting for the contribution and role of local communities and private/public partnerships. A thoughtful assessment and understanding of the successes and setbacks of collaboration and the role of pathfinders attempting to cut new collaborative trails at the federal level, the community level, and in the private sector can reveal much about the path ahead and the undervalued importance of social networking and social capital. The lessons being learned at the community level must interface with the federal experience in partnering and collaboration in order that approaches can be nuanced to account for the complexities in relationship building toward common direction, goal congruence, and effective outcomes that ultimately serve regional areas.

Loyalty to the individual organization cannot displace or overtake service to the idea or the collaborative venture being advanced. The presence of gifted and selfless collaborators, whether participating as individuals, institutions, or communities may be the key to collaborative success.

II. Waterside Communities, A Place for Establishing a Collaborative Foothold

In the public sector, communities located near iconic water features have the advantage of a strong and long standing water heritage and connection to their water resources. Many are making grassroots-led advances to undertake efforts to arrive at some sustainable balance in their interaction with water. This is not happening everywhere and often the advances are subtle and difficult to detect without close examination but centers of water excellence are emerging.

Likewise at the Federal level, agencies with water centric missions and responsibilities are being challenged to test traditional assumptions about interjurisdictional collaboration in order to produce water outputs that are scalable, replicable, demonstrational, producing measureable cumulative results for system betterment. Specific individuals, programs and projects undertaken with a supportive federal presence are making headway. Again, this is not occurring everywhere but examples of very effective collaboration are breaking through and should be documented and shared. The better part of the federal sector is seeking effective and timely ways to leverage resources, build shared ownership, and seek alignment and integration with multiple players operating at local, state, and regional levels to integrate efforts across water sectors to achieve sustainable outputs – a lofty goal, but one that is attainable and overdue.

III. Revealing Community Water Leaders

Individuals and institutional cultures possessing advanced collaborative skills and attitudes are uncommon. And therefore, locating water leaders and stewards becomes even more important. These gifted individuals are difference makers in collaboration, and where you find them, you find collaborative breakthroughs being made. We refer to these individuals as pathfinders. Locating and linking pathfinders at the local community level to like-minded individuals in the federal sector will enable greater and timelier collaborative success. More and more, water leaders are emerging in the private sector as well, often in the capacity of water resource consultants that have demonstrated the ability to greatly assist in facilitating this matchmaking process. By identifying and linking local water leaders to federal sector water leaders, water outcomes will result that accomplish federal program intent, while producing socially relevant and sustainable outcomes at the local level, that in turn add value at the system or watershed level.

Unlike many non-profit water focused organizations with a mission focus and a constituency, independent private consultants are principally interested in serving the interests of the client. If the client’s goal is seeking sustainable solutions, the private consultant can serve willingly as honest broker playing role of connector, convener, and sometimes translator in bringing water interests together in a dialogue that advances sustainable objectives.

IV. Championing Scalable Advancement, Revealing Water Success Stories

Interjurisdictional success stories present evidence of outputs that scale up to produce systems outcomes. In most cases, these models of water success are ongoing and iterative, building upon each success by tackling more sophisticated water challenges as the partners gain confidence with each milestone. Each success in turn produces a higher level of interorganizational trust, reliance, and collaborative efficiency. However, each new endeavor is often beset with arguably avoidable setbacks, overcoming a certain amount of inertia as new collaborators are folded in, and as strategic direction is refined to factor in and accommodate outlying or divergent interests. This inefficiency could be accounted for and reduced if successful collaborative communities of practice were more closely watched and actively nurtured by external champions, including Federal Program Managers. At critical points in the journey, these pathfinders need assistance and support. The necessary support sometimes is financial but, more often than not, it is a matter of mentoring and facilitation to overcome institutional barriers or traditional approaches and processes that are proving to be less than effective in today’s collaborative world – a time when networked governance and optimal use of social networks is proving to be the difference maker.

There is also the confounding matter that the farther away a person, institution, or community is from prominent influencing natural water features and/or pressing water issues, the greater lack of appreciation of water issues and urgency is in evidence. This is very likely due to a lack of water awareness and an attending lack of individual and collective commitment to stewardship of important natural capital. It also points to the acute need to improve watershed literacy. More and more local water leaders are accounting for this by incorporating greater emphasis on education and outreach to inform and empower by bringing the water message and its importance to the popular mainstream.

V. Developing Regional Water Centers

Examining major iconic natural water features reveals an obvious list that includes the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, the Everglades, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf. These systems are expansive but within each system one can find bayside, lakeside, riverside, and gulfside communities that are working effectively toward sustainable water outcomes. Significant local investments are being made to reconnect watershed “gateway” communities to their water heritage in order to diversify their economies and create more livable communities, by recognizing and protecting their natural capital and often creating water destinations for leisure travel. In other communities, leaders are successfully and incrementally tackling staggering water infrastructure updates. A greening effort is also underway to achieve source protection and/or source control to reduce and eliminate impacts to pre-development hydrology by employing creative local solutions to create stormwater retention and catchment plans, correct CSO’s, incentivize LID’s, and more aggressively protect riparian open space. In many cases, one can find federal partners and the influence of state and federal grants or programs at work in these communities.

The opportunity exists to further encourage and leverage the work of these pathfinding communities that are pioneering collaborative solutions by giving them structured access to pathfinders in the federal sector. One outcome of this interaction would be to document and share collaborative models that evolve through their interaction with other communities throughout the watershed.

VI. Identifying Beta Test Sites

An Alpha testing phase has been overtaken by the events of trial and error, lessons learned, and isolated success stories, often opportunistic. Beta test site identification seems more appropriate at the current stage. Initially desirable communities would be of sufficient size, near major population centers, within close proximity of iconic, socially relevant water features, and blessed with institutions that are fully engaged in water programs/projects. In some cases, the variety, complexity, and actual concentration of water work underway in certain communities reveals a “water campus,” possessing a concentrated array of water outputs with representative outputs accessible, interpretive, and demonstrational. These campuses can be used as living laboratories and life-cycle classrooms for sharing successful approaches to tackling a wide array of water challenges. Within each pathfinding community, a single institution, be it private, public, or academic typically emerges or is revealed as a convener, bringing other to the table. These pathfinders are a critical linkage and create a very important in-road or gateway into the community.

VII. Regional Test Sites Program

A small manageable number of test sites, initially one site within each regional watershed could be identified, the current status of water work quickly accounted for, and an assessment of near and long term collaborative milestones and critical processes identified. Monitoring, interaction, and facilitation could be initiated toward building a platform for demonstration. In turn, this could reveal a living social laboratory that anchors and fosters a dialogue with regional and local leaders on the applied principles and pathways for achieving effective integrated water resource management in that region.

VIII. First Step, Bringing Water Leaders Together

Concurrent to the identification of test sites, a series of discussions among federal and local water leaders to brainstorm facilitative assistance pathways could be conducted. These small group discussions or “water salons” would be informally chaired/facilitated by prominent water leaders and would serve to create a larger water conversation that could align interests and inputs across water sectors within watersheds. These salons could also promote information exchanges with local community water leaders on needs and barriers to successful collaboration. Stakeholders could sponsor this Water Resource Communities of Practice, but their autonomy must be assured so that it is apparent to all that their efforts are driven by common interest, not stakeholder or special interest. Since the mission of sponsoring such conversations falls outside the responsibility of any one of the twenty federal agencies with water resource responsibilities, private sector water consultants could be engaged to host and formulate these networking solution roundtables. A series of water salons, each focused on a particular test site, could be proceeded by, and launched with, an initial gathering that would provide an overview of each test site, its attributes, strengths, previous successes, barriers to overcome, and long-term needs.

IX. Bringing the Community into the Conversation – Moving from Public Involvement to Civic Engagement

Many communities are not yet ready to participate in a water conversation, which is why pathfinding communities with strong water portfolios are critical. Water infrastructure challenges confront every community but many lack the sophistication, experience, and resources to confront and address their water challenges. These communities often do not know who to turn to or where to begin. They could particularly benefit from access to the experience and lessons learned of other communities farther down the sustainable path. Most could benefit from heightened water awareness and a practical understanding of what makes collaboration work. All could benefit from a better-informed and engaged citizenry. Citizen empowerment will likely be necessary to move each of us from being water users to effective water stewards. At the federal level, water program managers could benefit from appreciating the differences between and across communities, the importance of a “no short cuts” approach to values-based relationship building in collaboration, and the need for civic engagement to raise water awareness and forge popular support for water resource stewardship, thus bringing water issues to an informed and engaged mainstream.

X. Keeping the Flame Burning at Home

Community colleges located in areas with a rich water heritage could prove to be important influencers at the community level. Community colleges are often trusted grassroots institutions of great social and practical relevance to the communities they serve. A Sustainability Network of Community Colleges linked to the research and extension capacity of major land grant universities could provide a sustained support role. By moving communities onto the sustainable path forward and assisting local businesses and industry with green job training and re-training, these colleges possess an important local narrative on sustainability and the importance of water resource stewardship, facilitating a fair and honest brokered discussion of existing water use and the need for a sustainable course correction.


Successful integration and governance of regional natural aquatic ecosystems to support a renewable and equitable distribution of freshwater is a great and immediate challenge confronting all levels of government. Individual civic responsibility for our common water future has to be addressed. Local communities must be at the table and civic engagement is warranted to bring everyone into the conversation. Effective and efficient collaboration will be crucial. We need to begin to chart an actionable course forward. We can no longer deliberate – we must act.

A path forward is presenting itself, one that is inclusive, empowering, and doable.