Watershed protection and restoration investments are critical to maintain benefits and services we all rely on, including drinking water sources, job-producing industries, and swimmable, fishable waters. Yet, as more funding flows toward watershed improvements, assessing and reporting progress becomes more important and complex.
A single watershed might stretch across counties, cities, and sometimes state lines, with boundaries that rarely line up nicely with clear management structures. Improving watershed conditions typically requires assembling complex networks of diverse actors, including municipalities, landowners, and public supporters. Even as groups of stakeholders learn to collaborate more effectively, understanding their collective impact in a watershed presents a new challenge. Meaningful improvements in watershed health might take decades or longer to observe through direct monitoring of watershed conditions, and results can be difficult to attribute to specific activities. For municipal watershed protection managers, these challenges are made more complex by detailed and often onerous public reporting needs. Lengthy requirements from regulators and the resulting 500–page reports can become burdensome to managers and reviewers alike. Agencies find themselves mired in complex monitoring and reporting frameworks that lead to uncertainty about their impact and inaction.
A New Approach to Watershed Plan Implementation and Tracking
Innovative efforts supported by EI are providing a vision for a new, more streamlined approach to reporting, tracking, and planning. Municipal agencies, regulators, and funding entities, such as foundations, are seeing success across the country with a performance-driven approach that focuses all parties on effective actions through metrics.
This approach leverages tools from the Conservation Standards, an internationally recognized method for systematically planning, implementing, and monitoring progress toward desired outcomes. It relies on a common understanding of a theory of change, or linkages between actions and agreed-upon desired outcomes that inspire action, as shown in the Figure below. This approach allows program managers to identify assumptions about the expected results of their work, test those assumptions and measure progress, and adapt investments and actions as needed. When large groups of stakeholders are collaborating within a watershed, this clear and transparent framework enables both alignment on goal setting and evaluation of progress to inform shifts in strategy.