Deconstructing The Horinko Group’s Collaborative Model for Our Nation’s Water Resources

As presented at the Clean Water America Alliance”s Water Policy Framework Meeting

Patrick McGinnis

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

January 13, 2011

My name is Pat McGinnis; I recently wrapped up a 32-year career working as a Public Lands Manager and Administrator within the Federal Sector. The better part of that time was spent in the Mississippi River Valley focused on riparian public lands management for the US Army Corps of Engineers. I logged many hours working on the ground with our Federal and State counterparts, along side a variety of conservation groups, waterside communities, and NGOs pushing new ideas forward and seeing them realized.

In 2009, after retiring from federal service, I joined The Horinko Group; a small environmental consulting shop located here in DC, led by former EPA Acting Administrator, Marianne Horinko. Marianne and I share a mutual impatient optimism about the great things that good people can accomplish with the right tools and incentives.

My time in the public sector managing partnerships taught me a great deal about the nuances of cooperative undertakings, the need for transparency, accountability, the critical nature of honest, open communication, the need for building social relevance into large public sector initiatives, and the importance of demonstrating tangible results, replicating what works, and being persistent.

These experiences, of getting things done, of recognizing that everyone has a stake in our water future, are guiding The Horinko Group’s efforts today to engage the water conversation.

Before setting course, we asked ourselves – Could a small shop really add value to this national water dialogue?

In 2009, we committed ourselves to the overall effort of moving the water conversation more into the mainstream. Through our work with water sector clients we observed patterns emerging that suggested an integrated approach was more possible, practical and less complicated than many were proclaiming.

The Horinko Group brought together a group of colleagues to share their water stories and relate the barriers and opportunities expressed by water sector clients and subject matter experts. We set a goal for ourselves that we would not engage unless we could demonstrate and add value.

Initially, client interest had us focused on ecological services, the natural capital of aquatic systems, the infrastructure replacement backlog, and the desire to revitalize waterside communities to make them more livable. During our discussions we attempted to deconstruct a variety of water issues and in so doing a few common themes or needs emerged that seemed to cut cross or connect issues. These themes became early assumptions for us –

  • The lack of communication between decision-makers and practitioners could confound solutions to any given water issue;
  • Given the complexity and inter-jurisdictional nature of most water issues the need for collaboration and resource leveraging was imperative;
  • Securing our common water future was not so much a top-down or bottom-up thing, but was more of a horizontal thing…promoting inclusion, transparency, and interdependence.
  • If choices between polluting and stewarding happen locally, then civic engagement and social learning to better inform the water conversation is crucial. Traditional expressions of public involvement would not be enough, much broader and continuous civic engagement was called for to move us from being water users to becoming water stewards.
  • For watershed issues to matter on Main Street not only did the public need to be more aware of the problems but the solutions had to be couched in terms that were socially relevant. Addressing water issues had to be viewed as central to producing a more livable community;
  • Demonstrations that are replicable, scalable, and create expectations of what is possible could play a powerful role; and,
  • We saw an immediate need to stop the bleeding— too much activity is driven by incentives that encourage shortsighted non-sustainable outputs that carry a high social cost and far too little true return. Results-driven goals must be set, and incentives established, that further those results and only those results.

We also found ourselves attempting to address the often-confounding terminology of “water speak.” Terms like adaptive management, integrated water resources management, networked governance, system resilience, risk analysis, and performance measurement were regularly sucking the oxygen out of the room. As many grappled with their meaning and intent it became apparent that the question wasn”t just “what does this term mean,” but rather “what will this mean to me and my organization.” Too many discussions quickly led to posturing over new programs, new institutional arrangements, and the omen of even more layers of bureaucracy.

At The Horinko Group, we are strong believers in adaptive management principles and its incremental approach to addressing big problems. We felt that “demystifying” adaptive management and staying focused on “managing one water,” to borrow your Alliance’s tagline, while finding footholds for action within existing programs provided our best chance at identifying an early path forward with some assurance of early tangible results.

So, late in 2009, we crafted what turned out to be a draft Ten Point Plan that included what we saw as absolutes that demanded attention, what seemed possible, and where early outputs could be achieved.

We also tried to account for a variety of nuanced factors that weren”t getting enough attention – the underlying influencers at the root of many of our water issues. Water quality and water availability kept coming back as central attributes that we felt had to stay in sharp focus.

While others, with good reason, focused on infrastructure and regulatory enforcement, we opted to direct our narrative toward source protection, source control incentives, and overall system stewardship.

Regarding the infrastructure backlog, and I think this is a very important point, during my Federal career I watched time after time as the project delivery culture of the Corps tried to communicate the value of individual projects it was advancing without first communicating the function and values of the aquatic ecosystems it was applying these projects to. Here’s the lesson – How on earth can we expect citizens to really assess the value of the part and judge the value of its contribution without first understanding something about the whole?

It was this reality that partly shaped our commitment to underscore the importance of social capital and raising system awareness to create a context where communities could begin to fully appreciate the importance of proper valuation of water, the urgency of infrastructure challenges and water conservation, and the dilemma that non-point pollution presents. But again, before you can ever convince someone of the system added value of a single output you have to first explain the value and functionality of the system.

Having seen great examples of collaboration and progress being made at both ends of the spectrum, from small rural communities to Fortune 500 corporations, we were encouraged that these complex problems were not beyond our collective reach to address – perhaps naively, we thought, “this shouldn”t be this hard.” There are good things happening out there and so a part of the effort for us became effectively calling attention to best practices and collaborative models demonstrating outputs that could prove to be replicable, scalable, and reveal principles of adaptive management.

Several agencies and non-for-profits were already actively working to put forth and test their own national water policy or agenda documents. We felt our approach was not the only approach and certainly not the most encompassing, but we were confident that a significant measure of what we had identified could prove doable. We didn”t want our efforts to compete, but rather complement and align with the efforts of others including the work of the Alliance, the American Water Resource Association, and The Johnson Foundation, to call out those we view being among the most thoughtful.

Having crafted our 10-point plan, we agreed to commit our energy, enthusiasm, and a good portion of our 2010 marketing budget, to stir the water conversation and gain feedback on the assumptions we had made in our draft action plan.

To do this we designed a series of events to afford us the opportunity to engage others, not to discuss our plan, but rather discuss the principles it was based on and to listen. We designed and hosted a Summit in April of last year, followed by a series of quarterly water resource focused salons, and a series of water resource themed webinars. On World Water Day in March of last year, we also launched our Water Division Webpage to call attention to our philosophy and vision, our intentions for 2010, and events and activities of others in the water sector. We also wanted a place where we could post our progress and findings, allowing others to track the conversation.

The focus of our April Summit became connecting Water Leaders Across Watersheds. Peter Silva, heading up EPA’s Office of Water, and Terrence (Rock) Salt, serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Works for the Corps, opened the proceedings that included three lively panel discussions, one on the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, one on the role of collaboration and civic engagement in sustaining the Mississippi River, and one which provided a federal sector perspective on the future of integrated water resources management.

We then followed the summit with a three-part water resources salon series. The function of these salons was to bring together small groups of practitioners, program managers, and thought leaders to address very specific factors affecting our stewardship of water. The salon format allowed the participants to deconstruct issues into problem statements and then brainstorm opportunities for problem solving and next steps.

Our first salon focused on communication between practitioners and decision makers, and was moderated by University of Maryland Professor Dr. Gerry Galloway and Bob Petrowski, Director of the Institute for Water Resources. Our next salon focused on Networks, Coalitions, and the Role of Social Capital in Water Resources Management, and was led by Professor Stephen Gasteyer of Michigan State University, and our third salon addressed engaging the public for river sustainability and livable communities and was led by Todd Ambs, President of the River Network and Anne Lewis founder of Php Aide America’s Waterway.

These roundtable discussions proved to be a collegial and non-threatening forum for convening subject matter experts and program managers to discuss in greater detail significant and nagging barriers to collaboration, civic engagement, and support for new approaches to old challenges.

In 2010, we also hosted a three-part water focused Webinar Series that opened with a session addressing an ongoing collaborative effort that is restoring riparian forests along the upper Mississippi River, where on-the-ground practitioners discussed their work and their vision. Our second webinar dealt with new applications and approaches to civic engagement and its importance and included a great line-up headed by CEQ’s Robyn Colosimo. We finished up the year with a session on, Engaging the Next Generation of Water Leaders that showcased an exciting collaborative effort to reach an urban K-12 population in the greater St. Louis area that includes 500,000 students with a strong water message tied to civic leadership. The webinars were well attended and the feedback we received suggested they were greatly appreciated.

Certainly, an expected and realized benefit of hosting these events were their value in allowing us to test and refine many of the assumptions we made in our original draft action plan.

I should note that the proceedings from the summit and salons, as well as the audio recordings from the webinars are all posted on The Horinko Group’s website.

Over the past two months, we further refined our draft 10-point plan document and sent it out to a number of colleagues for informal peer review. We also conducted a number of interviews about specific objectives in the plan and how they might be advanced in 2011 and have now finalized the document, entitled, Promoting the Sustainability of Our Nation’s Water Resources, which can be downloaded from The Horinko Group’s website.

Our plan is really an aggregate of 10 actionable recommendations. Its focus is on system stewardship, the value of demonstrating new water resource outputs on public and private lands, of encouraging source protection and control through collaboration, better integration of existing programs, creating appropriate incentives, and utilizing social capital to move individual behavior toward a culture of stewardship.

Our goal was to create something actionable in the near-term and to foster a sense of urgency and opportunity for putting measurable results on the ground as a catalyst for broader and larger contributions by local and regional actors.

It was designed to quickly lead to discussions on how parts or all of it could be applied to regional systems.

There are familiar themes that are called out in our plan. To quickly summarize, we are calling for:

  • Integration of federal programs, while calling attention to programs with promise like USDA and EPA’s Healthy Watershed Initiatives and the Department of Interior’s Landscape Conservation Cooperative, as well as the Corps’ Planning Assistance Federal Tool Box.
  • Expanded authority to add water quality to the project authorization of existing Corps water resource projects and recommending that the Corps’ Planning Principles and Guidelines fully account for the social costs of local public works projects.
  • A recommitment to National Flood Insurance Reform so that sanity can be restored to floodplain management.
  • Retooling of the next Farm Bill to incentivize sustainable practices in ways that work for farmers, taxpayers, and our nation’s water resources.
  • New approaches to increasing civic awareness and increasing watershed literacy facilitating a more informed water conversation.
  • Ways to connect water issues to community livability and communicating at the grassroots level so that more of us make an emotional connection to water and see the social relevance of water conservation.
  • Using nature-based tourism as a mechanism for waterside communities to diversify their economies while recognizing the natural capital of the systems they are reconnecting with.
  • And lastly, an important consideration also became calling attention to best practices and replicable scalable models. Practitioners operating on the ground must have a platform to effectively communicate their successes with decision-makers here inside the beltway.

We have not turned our back on pressing infrastructure needs nor have we moved away from the need for regulatory programs that work. But for these water sector needs to become socially appreciated and relevant, their importance needs to be more effectively demonstrated and communicated – this is where we are putting our emphasis and call for early outputs.

During 2011 we intend to:

Continue our outreach activities with an expanded salon and webinar series culminating in a year-end summit tentatively scheduled for November.

Continue to call attention to the good work of others and facilitate the export of their best practices.

Ramp up our efforts to engage others and look for synergy and alignment of purpose to advance the water conversation and most importantly to help those that are attempting to put results on the ground.

And lastly, offer our assistance to agencies and other NGOs that are attempting to advance their own efforts to produce sustainable outcomes and secure our water future.

We hope you will each take a moment to study our approach. We are working at the community level and there is a great deal of energy and untapped capacity out there. We simply need a convergence of effort. We hope to hear from you if we can be of assistance and add our voice to yours.