A Watershed Idea

| January / February 2008

An untamable outlaw, water runs roughshod over governmental boundaries. Rivers, lakes, and wetlands freely cross city, county, state, and federal lines carrying all sorts of contraband—sewage, chemicals, invasive species—from place to place. This makes waterways a complex resource to protect, given the tangle of agencies and interest groups involved in coordinating management and use. There is hope, though, according to Governing (Sept. 2007), which reports that citizen-led groups organized around natural boundaries—or watersheds—can play a key role in cleaning up local waters.

There are roughly 6,000 watershed associations in the United States, and about 3,500 of them have formal structures that allow people to get involved in making policy that affects their waterways. In Massachusetts, the Charles River Watershed Association has worked to make the river cleaner than it’s been in decades—no small feat for the river that inspired the Standells’ 1966 hit song “Dirty Water.” In Washington, a multiple-watershed alliance called the Shared Strategy for Puget Sound has helped craft a plan to resurrect the sound’s plummeting chinook salmon population. In Montana, the Blackfoot Challenge has brought together landowners and conservationists, as well as state and federal agencies, to stave off development around the Blackfoot River and preserve its famous trout fishing.

Some national environmental groups are skeptical about the long-term sustainability of these collaborative approaches, which tend to favor voluntary measures over enforcement and fines. But as William Ruckelshaus, chair of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, points out, “If you can’t get local citizens on your side, you’re going to spend all your time in court or the state legislature or Congress fighting with them. That doesn’t work for anybody.”

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