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. 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.
Just as important – instead of measuring everything that may be relevant, managers and regulators can focus on tracking only the metrics that are most important and that demonstrate progress is being made.
Watershed managers are embracing this approach, and the impacts are significant. In some places, municipal agencies and regulators have agreed on metrics that have enabled new procurement approaches, like pay-for-performance contracting, and have accelerated implementation of pollutant-reducing actions at decreasing costs. In Northern California, the Lake Clarity Crediting Program connects on-the-ground activities like street sweeping and erosion control projects to quantifiable pollutant reductions in the form of consistently calculated credits for sediment and nutrient load reductions. This program achieved a 10% sediment load reduction within its first 5-year permit term and is now achieving nearly 20% load reduction with one year left in the second permit term. Each year, the program continues to register dozens of projects and track hundreds of water quality credits.
Agencies in Southern California, including County of San Diego and County of Orange, and their partners in watershed protection work, are currently exploring the value of performance metrics for planning and reporting implementation of water quality plans. When all parties focus on what matters and effective performance tracking, third parties gain confidence in permittee commitment to the environment, permittees can focus on effective implementation rather than checklist requirements, and regulators gain transparency into real water quality progress.
Learn more at CASQA 2020!
On September 15-16, EI will join hundreds of municipal stormwater managers in a virtual discussion of this new approach and Southern California innovation at CASQA, the largest annual gathering of California water quality managers to envision the future of stormwater management. Performance-driven approaches will be critical to this future and can help stakeholders coalesce around outcomes and work more effectively.
Join us for a session on September 15 at 11 am to learn about promising results in the Chesapeake Bay and Northern California and movement in Southern California to adopt this approach. We hope attendees will leave with an understanding of the key components of performance-driven programs, including a structure of metrics, a map of essential cause and effect relationships, and clear reporting dashboards. We look forward to an engaging discussion with municipal partners about this vision for a streamlined approach to planning and tracking watershed protection programs.
To learn more about the agenda and register for CASQA, click here. We hope to see you there!