Making the Popular Case for Water Resource Sustainability

Brendan McGinnis

The Role of Storytelling and Social Networkers
Co-Authored By: Brendan P. McGinnis and Patrick S. McGinnis
THG’s Water Division
April 2010

Water is ubiquitous but its values can be deconstructed or unbundled in order to examine who, what, and how individuals and organizations relate to water.

In Planet Water, author Steven Hoffmann examines water as a public good, commodity, and resource. In his treatment, he also calls out five functionally separable water sectors: water utilities, treatment, analytical, infrastructure, and resource management. In addition, multibusiness hybrids are described that cross multiple sectors.

Assistant Professor Stephen Gasteyer of Michigan State University describes water resource sustainability at the community level as multifaceted and consisting of a balance between human, social, financial/built, and natural capitals.

We believe a closer examination is worthwhile into each of Hoffman’s water sectors, and how they are influenced by and relate to each of the forms of capital that Gasteyer describes. The effort allows for more careful and thorough analysis of where gaps or needs might exist in water services and in achieving the sustainability of water as a resource, rather than as a public good or commodity. At the community level, it is critically important to emphasize and fully account for the cultural, economic, and intrinsic values that water resources represent. And by doing so, we will better determine where socially relevant and socially understood footholds are in raising public awareness to a point where common and important water objectives can be advanced with popular understanding and support.

Hoffman ultimately concludes water is a spatially dispersed interjurisdictional resource that is influenced by layers of governance and regulation. And therefore, its stewardship will be confounded if its management is not flexible, adaptive, and integrated. We would argue that the need for stewardship must also find common understanding and support.

Generally explained, water could be divided into two central attributes: quality and availability (i.e., supply). To address the stewardship of these two attributes, two broad levels of engagement seem inevitable – the regional or system level and the local level, both of which can focus attention and action on these two fronts. While we believe much attention needs to be given to interjurisdictional governance at the system or watershed level, much effort is immediately needed to better engage and inform at the local level also. Regional networked planning and governance reveals the whole and a system context and creates the implementing opportunity for an adaptive management framework to address riparian protection and make watershed-level strategies actionable. That same system context becomes a baseline of understanding that individuals at the community level can reflect upon when attempting to value the positive or negative impacts of individual local outputs or proposed new development.

Communities are being confronted with a number of financial challenges in today’s world. Pressing infrastructure issues exist with attendant costs related to treatment and distribution, stormwater retention, source control, and individual behavior. In most cases, these issues can only be effectively addressed when civic engagement leads to informed and emotionally engaged citizens. Only then will an informed appreciation of water challenges gain popular traction and a culture of sustainability have popular footing.

We believe the great overlooked piece in addressing our common water future and a central barrier to successful integrated water resource management is the need to shape a greater sensibility among our policymakers and program administrators about the power of social networking and social capital in changing behavior and opening doors to innovation. At the core of social networking is communication, building relationships, and building trust.

To move beyond our current understanding, a more thoughtful accounting of the processes that enable integration may prove to be significant. Case building through storytelling and effective communication can be utilized not only to present or convey technical solutions, but more importantly to reach and connect with an audience’s core values. Likewise better communication and understanding will be crucial to working collaboratively across organizational boundaries. Critical information cannot be simply briefed or reported, but conveyed as a narrative or story that makes an emotional connection and builds ownership. Rather than investing in improved but rigid public involvement processes, a water conversation could be fostered that creates listening opportunities to recast issues and solutions as more socially relevant and culturally acceptable. Forums will result where actionable paths forward with well-defined measurable milestones can be better visualized, described, designed, and delivered with new levels of popular ownership.

Another component of integration is building and servicing relationships, requiring a heightened appreciation and understanding of diverse corporate, organizational, and community cultures, so that collaboration and cooperation can be more effectively facilitated. In this capacity, there is a facilitating need to locate potential partners, help them find one another, and then understand each organization's needs and culture in order to provide the necessary translation between cultures. In public-private partnerships, this need is particularly acute. When organizations are science or technically-based, this can prove very difficult because scientists and engineers, often by their nature, are not typically recruited for their social networking skills – a rather unsettling observation in an era of value-based collaboration and shared purpose.

On the matter of integrating across organizational boundaries, Stephan Goldsmith’s book Governing by Network, the New Shape of the Public Sector, points out that good oversight by government officials engaged in outsourcing or private-public partnerships concentrates on outcomes, not process. Fixation on process undermines efforts to achieve goal congruence among partners. One particular strength the federal government can bring to bear on facilitation of integrated approaches is its “convening authority,” bringing together various service silos together for networking. Goldsmith presents a very worthwhile read in trying to understand where gaps are likely to exist in integrated management and networked governance.

To conclude, the need for integrated resource management at the regional level may represent the path forward to effectively address water issues with sustainable solutions. At the local community level, the focus will likely continue to be on bringing networks for action together for zoning and individual conservation action, and funding to address stormwater, treatment, and distribution infrastructure. In rural floodplain areas, testing old assumptions by creating new landowner incentives to encourage outputs that reduce the social costs attendant to unsustainable practices may finally get a fair look.

At the core of effectively addressing these regional and local water concerns, a stronger focus should be placed on folding in integrators, communicators, and translators into the conversation so that all points of view are better understood and all participants are better informed. In a measured world, there will likely be a challenge to produce examples of outcomes that account for the value of such players and how they expedite actionable solutions. The best integrators or connectors will be the ones that get results…the closers. Call them whatever you like, but these great communicators may very well prove to be the difference makers, and at present, they seem too often to be the missing piece in collaboration.