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Can a federal regulator become a civic enabler? Watersheds at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In their influential 1990 book on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, political scientist Marc Landy and his colleagues criticized the agency for "asking the wrong questions." They argued that EPA downplayed real places in favor of abstract risks and failed to treat local communities as "schools of citizenship." Since then, the agency has learned a great deal in response to such critiques, which have become part of a larger policy argument for a "civic environmentalism" that engages communities in active problem solving and ecosystem restoration. Civic environmentalism was bolstered in the mid-1990s by a series of reports to Congress by the National Academy of Public Administration, as well as by prestigious policy groups such as Enterprise for the Environment. At the turn of the century, William Shutkin's The Land That Could Be and Dan Kemmis's This Sovereign Land made the strongest cases to date that continued environmental progress was inextricably linked to revitalization of civic democracy and community capacity. Command-and-control regulation has its place and certainly has been responsible for substantial gains since 1970. But its limits have become increasingly evident in dealing with nonpoint source pollution (pollution without a specific source), ecosystem protection, land management, and environmental justice, among other prominent issues.

Needless to say, these policy reformulations have been driven in part by development of new kinds of civic association and community-based movement. Even as some of our most prominent academics were diagnosing important trends in the erosion of social capital and the demise of such classic multi-tiered civic associations as the Moose and Elk, the environmental arena was spawning innovations: watershed associations and councils, volunteer water-quality monitoring groups, land trusts, environmental justice groups, ecosystem restoration projects, and multistakeholder partnerships of many sorts. Lewis Friedland and I demonstrated the broad range of civic innovation in the environmental field in our Civic Innovation in America, and others have continued to do so as well. The questions I pose here go further: Can a federal environmental regulator, such as the EPA, become a civic enabler of consequence? Can it help build community capacity and facilitate partnerships so that civic associations can begin to grapple effectively with a whole host of complex environmental problems that command-and-control regulation alone cannot address? If it can--however imperfectly and incompletely at this point--how has it been able to do so? What are the core components of federal policy and administrative design that enable civic problem solving?

Behind this analysis of the EPA lies a larger issue for the civic renewal debate. To put it bluntly, it's time to bring the state back in. Periodically, this call to reemphasize government appears in sociology and political science for a host of other issues, but it has generally been absent in scholarly and public discussion about civic revitalization, with the exception of national service. After all, civics is about community, voluntary action, social capital, associations, networks, trust. But we know from studies such as that of Jeffrey Berry and his colleagues in The Rebirth of Urban Democracy that some of the most effective forms of local participation are those formally recognized and supported by city government on a citywide basis. Archon Fung's Empowered Participation demonstrates that city agencies are capable of both providing resources and designing accountability to enable effective civic problem solving in partnership with civil servants. In my own research on youth civic engagement in Hampton, Virginia, and neighborhood empowerment and participatory planning in Seattle, energetic city sponsorship has proven critical and makes these cities among the very best, if not the best model of their type in the United States.

Jumping from city agencies to the federal government is a big leap, to be sure, and one that comes with all the legitimate questions of failed (or at least questionably effective) use of the federal government to support maximum feasible participation in the 1960s. But we have come a long way since the 1960s, and agencies and citizen groups alike have many more models for collaborative problem solving and effective engagement than existed at the time. In this essay, I examine one agency, and specifically one area of its work--namely, watersheds within the EPA's Office of Water. There are community-based and participatory approaches in various other offices and programs, and the new Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) program, a multimedia program that cuts across various offices, has been working energetically to build on the learning from all of them. The one lesson that seems incontestable, however, is that without the support of the EPA, civic capacity for watershed protection and restoration would be far less than it is today. The evidence suggests further that the more complex the set of issues and range of stakeholders, the greater the role of the federal government needs to be in helping to build the capacity of local groups, as well as regional and national networks, through grants, technical assistance, information resources, training, and other means. The greater the complexity of public problems, the more government at all levels must invest in democracy, strategically and substantially. If, in 1990, EPA was asking the wrong questions, today we can see a substantial civic and technical knowledge base for getting it right--or at least much better--when it comes to citizen action in communities of place.

Watersheds and the Clean Water Act of 1972

During the 1970s, citizens became engaged in water issues at the grass roots as never before. The federal government spurred this in several ways. Responding to the ethos of the 1960s movements, Congress passed the Clean Water Act Amendments of 1972 with strong requirements for citizen participation. The act's primary goal--though relatively inchoate compared to its specific remedies and dollars for chemical pollution control--was holistic ecological restoration. As one senior administrator recalls, her original water pollution group at the U.S. Department of Heath, Education, and Welfare in the 1960s (which became part of the new EPA) was already thinking in terms of watersheds and basin plans and was especially inspired by civic action on water quality led by local Leagues of Women Voters. But this long-term geographic approach competed unfavorably with the quick and measurable results that were possible through water pollution control technologies and municipal construction grants, which were in turn championed by a venerable professional association of water pollution control engineers with far more status at the time than biologists and ecologists.

Nonetheless, Section 208 of the 1972 act created a framework for multicounty water-quality management planning, and EPA furnished regional staff support, local grants, and citizen participation manuals and training workshops through groups such as the Conservation Foundation. As a result, hundreds of local associations, such as Leagues of Women Voters and Sierra Club chapters, were able to develop rudimentary technical knowledge of water planning in state and local jurisdictions, as well as the civic skills and relationships to work with a range of interests. For most, this was the first time they had come to the table with other civic groups, not to mention local businesses, utilities, farmers, and myriad regulatory agencies concerned with water. The process was messy and most planning efforts disappointing for a variety of reasons (limited statutory authority and local political clout, especially over land use; delayed administrative guidance and stop-and-go funding that disrupted civic and institutional capacity building; relatively low status of the "soft" watershed staff in the agency relative to those from the "hard" disciplines of law and engineering). But a reservoir of skills and relationships carried over into subsequent efforts, as citizens began to form watershed and river protection groups on a broad scale and to break out of the mind-set fostered by narrow rules and infrastructure projects. The International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes also brought its lessons of citizen-driven work on nonpoint source (NPS) pollution to Chesapeake Bay and other programs.

The Reagan administration's defunding of Section 208 in 1981 created a programmatic hiatus, but EPA became considerably more strategic over the course of the 1980s in developing capacity for effective community-based work in watersheds. First, it began to reframe the problem of water in overtly civic terms: not just controlling discrete pollutants through regulatory action but also protecting and restoring integrated ecosystems through sustained stewardship among diverse civic, business, and government stakeholders. Second, EPA began to develop collaborative management and place-based data tools that would allow communities and stakeholders to work more effectively at the watershed level. Third, it helped to build the capacity of national and regional civic associations capable of sharing in the work and, in turn, of aiding in developing the capacity of local groups. Fourth, EPA catalyzed learning networks on an extensive scale so that citizen laypersons, professional scientists, and regulators could develop usable knowledge and technique together.

Refraining the Problem: Watersheds as Complex Natural and Civic Systems

Beginning with the Chesapeake Bay Program in 1983 and the National Estuary Program (NEP) of 1987, and then further with creation of the Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds (OWOW) in 1991, EPA began to reframe the problem of water pollution and develop a broad "watershed approach" that contained two critical components. First, most if not all the key problems pertaining to water--quality, supply, fisheries, habitat preservation, biodiversity, flood control--needed to be understood and addressed as part of hydrologically defined drainage basins known as watersheds. Because watersheds, including smaller watersheds nested in much larger ones, are systems defined by complex interactions among innumerable natural and social dynamics, only holistic, problem-solving strategies tailored to specific contexts could hope to maintain and restore them. Fragmented federal regulation, command-and-control techniques, and massive investment in wastewater treatment had reduced point source pollution significantly since the Clean Water Act Amendments of 1972, but watersheds remained at risk thanks to NPS pollution, primarily from farms, transportation systems, and urban runoff, for which the familiar tools would not be adequate.

Second, unlike top-down watershed planning of the big power dam models of the midtwentieth century, the new watershed approach is inherently civic. The Chesapeake Bay Program and NEP are founded on the idea that long-term protection and restoration of such complex ecosystems, often extending over thousands of square miles, requires citizens to develop a sense of genuine ownership and a protective civic ethic. Local knowledge, relationships, and initiative are essential to develop effective strategies for reducing nonpoint sources of pollution, as well as to generate the political will to assume the costs of upgrading sewage treatment or altering sensitive land-use policies. Diverse stakeholders must develop a shared vision and find ways to collaborate: farmers upstream with boaters and oystermen on the bay, environmentalists with developers, scientists and regulators with lay citizens and students. Peer education is also critical. Farmers can help educate each other about best management practices through open houses, twilight meetings, and one-on-ones. Ranchers can meet over coffee to consider the benefits of conservation easements. Since the health of watersheds depends on the everyday choices of citizens (lawn care, trash disposal, household chemical use), public education plays a central role in the watershed approach. Because watershed boundaries do not dovetail neatly with local political jurisdictions and watershed problems do not conform to segmented agency authority, a civic network strategy, combined with interagency collaboration, is essential. Indeed, the deputy assistant administrator for water at the time the Chesapeake Bay Program was established notes that it was Congress's authorization of the initial research grant for the Chesapeake Bay study-money not requested by the EPA itself-that truly catalyzed the network of watershed thinkers and leaders. As other OWOW innovators also clearly recognized, the watershed frame revived and modernized an idea proposed a century before by John Wesley Powell, the legendary explorer and second director of the U.S. Geological Survey: that governance of natural resources requires us to think in terms of "watershed commonwealths."

Collaborative Management and Place-Based Tools

In addition to reframing the problem, EPA has been energetic in developing the management and data tools to enable effective collaboration and community-based action. These vary, depending on the type of watershed and specific community and state context, and they are certainly still imperfect. But they represent significant investment in institutional infrastructure and a knowledge base for civic management of water resources.

The management conference is the key planning and implementation structure developed first by the Chesapeake Bay Program, and then extended to NEE Once a governor or group of governors convinces the EPA to designate an estuary as having "national significance," a local management conference is established with its own budget and office housed in a state or federal agency, university, or nonprofit organization. The management conference consists of a broad range of stakeholders, including public agencies, businesses, academic institutions, scientists, and environmental and community groups. It is responsible for developing a shared vision and comprehensive conservation and management plan (CCMP) on the basis of sound science, to which stakeholders will commit, and then developing implementation strategies, as well as further funding from government and private sources. The Peconic Estuary Program, for instance, complemented its environmental and nonmarket values analysis with an assessment of the economic contributions of the estuary, which helped generate an additional $100 million from state, county, and local governments for conservation.

In addition to policy, technical, and scientific committees, estuary programs have a local government committee to help enlist collaboration of elected public officials--for example, on land-use planning, which is so critical to future gains but is largely outside the statutory authority of EPA and state agencies. Most management conferences also have a citizens advisory committee (CAC), with an even broader representation of stakeholder groups. The CAC takes responsibility for ongoing public participation: conducting workshops and community meetings to explain scientific findings and explore options, enlisting professional and business group support for best management practices, publishing a newsletter and guides for everyday household use, recruiting civic and school groups for hands-on monitoring and restoration, brokering new partnerships, reviewing plan development and implementation, generating political support, and serving as a watchdog. The management conference has no regulatory authority, since NEP is a voluntary program. However, its CCMP and implementation strategies often include highly public recommendations for local and state regulatory action and thus exercise significant moral authority to move political leaders and public agencies. Comparative and quantitative studies, though still limited in number, show that the National Estuary Program builds social capital, reduces conflict between competing advocacy coalitions such as environmentalists and business, and enhances belief in institutional capacity for solving complex, diffuse, and boundary-spanning problems typically faced in estuaries. Even where there have been serious gaps in stakeholder representation or scientific research has trumped civic action, NEPs have enhanced the numbers and capacities of local citizen groups. EPA's investment in the twenty-eight NEPs has been critical to reducing the transaction costs of developing governance networks in contexts where institutional undersupply is endemic.

EPA has helped build watershed management capacities in various others ways as well. In 1994, OWOW established the Watershed Academy to supply in-person and (in 1996) Web-based training for federal, state, local, and nonprofit watershed practitioners. The academy offers an array of courses on scientific, technical, data, and planning issues, as well as courses on stakeholder involvement, partnerships, and public outreach. It has collaborated with the management development centers of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to offer two-week residential Watershed Partnership seminars emphasizing community-based decision making for staff of federal, state, tribal, and local agencies, as well as environmental organizations and corporations. The recently introduced Academy Webcasts, which in tight budget times are seen as highly cost-effective, can draw hundreds, as did the January 2006 Webcast on using EPA's new (draft) watershed planning handbook, which had 550 participants, not counting those who subsequently used the recorded version. Since 2000, the academy has awarded some eleven hundred certificates to those who have completed at least fifteen courses. The academy has worked directly with more than twenty states to develop model watershed projects for specific basins, as well as comprehensive state watershed strategies, which are funded partially through Section 319 NPS grants, authorized by the 1987 revisions of the Clean Water Act. The academy, however, does not just offer courses by EPA experts; it mobilizes a broad network of skilled practitioners from state programs, as well as national and state watershed groups and centers, to serve as trainers, thus helping to leverage the knowledge of innovative states and civic watershed networks, such as the River Network.

Many of the resources for community-based training provided directly by EPA, or developed through cooperative agreements with other organizations, have been sophisticated in quality. One such course is based on the EPA guide Community Culture and the Environment, which an OWOW team developed with community watershed groups and field-tested with local chapters of the Nature Conservancy. The guide adapts the best wisdom of community visioning (including that of the National Civic League), assets-based community development, and other consensus organizing methods to the environmental field; it ranks with the best of hundreds of such training manuals I have examined across the larger civic field. The Center for Watershed Protection, with support from EPA and other agencies (in addition to fees and foundation grants), has conducted intensive watershed workshops for more than fifteen thousand practitioners since 1993 and has developed a range of high-quality watershed guides. Its 230-page Methods to Develop Restoration Plans for Small Urban Watersheds, written by Tom Schueler and Anne Kitchell and just one in an eleven-volume subwatershed series, presents a meticulously clear yet detailed set of planning and technical tools, woven seamlessly with methods of stakeholder engagement and public education throughout. The Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia teamed up with the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, with support from EPA's bay program, to produce Karen Firehock and colleagues' Community Watershed Forums: A Planners Guide, based on the extensive experience of grassroots efforts and partnerships over a twenty-year period. EPA's new Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters is a clear and comprehensive guide for collaborative and participatory work.

EPA has also become increasingly energetic in developing information and measurement systems that can enable local action for accountable progress. Data developed through the main regulatory water programs at EPA have been notoriously incomplete for decades and typically exist in fragmented forms that do not enable communities to get a holistic picture of the overall health of a watershed or to really assess when, where, and why progress is occurring. Some regional EPA offices, however, have formed partnerships with watershed associations to develop "measurement that matters," in the words of Shelley Metzenbaum, who formerly headed EPA's office of regional operations and state-local relations. Region 1 in New England, for example, collaborated with the Charles River Watershed Association and other nonprofits to develop comprehensible, credible, and frequent performance information that would motivate citizens as well as hold agencies accountable for reaching the goal of a Clean Charles by 2005. EPA headquarters has invested in development of increasingly sophisticated Web-based and GIS tools to give local actors layers of relevant place-based data from the broadest range of federal and state agencies and volunteer monitoring partners, such as the EnviroMapper for Water and the soon-to-be-released Water Quality Exchange. The Watershed Planning Team is scheduled to roll out a new Web-based planning tool in the fall of 2006 that promises to enhance considerably the ability of local civic groups and partnerships to plan in an increasingly effective and participatory fashion.

Building the Capacity of Civic Associations

By the mid-1990s, a self-styled watershed movement, espousing a vision of "watershed democracy" and "collaborative management," emerged out of hundreds, perhaps even several thousand, disparate watershed associations and councils, friends-of-the-river and adopt-a-stream groups, and myriad other stewardship efforts. Though clearly the product of local action, inspired in part by bioregionalist ideas, and nurtured by the efforts of various regional and national associations and foundations, the movement has received essential support from EPA. The agency, as noted earlier, has progressively aligned its watershed frame with the emergent frame of the movement-and vice versa-and it has developed or encouraged some management structures, community planning practices, and data tools to enable more effective participation, thus providing further incentives and lower costs for citizens to organize. EPA has also made funding available for national, state, and regional convenings of the watershed movement, such as the first national conference of estuary groups in October 1987, Watershed '93, a National Watershed Forum in June 2001 (preceded by regional watershed roundtables over a two-year period), and biennial conferences of volunteer water-quality monitoring groups (to which I return in the next section).

Perhaps most important, however, is that the agency has made grants to directly build the capacity of local watershed associations and kindred groups, as well as state, regional, and national intermediaries that work with them. EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, for instance, has funded a small watershed grants program since 1998 to support hands-on restoration efforts by local groups, as well as capacity building to enable new groups to become established. These grants, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 (with several annual "community legacy grants" of up to $100,000), were initially administered by the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, a major regional group, but are now managed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by Congress in 1984. A parallel set of grants for building local government capacity is administered by the Center for Chesapeake Communities. The small grants have enabled local groups to engage in technical assessment and planning and to undertake a range of participatory restoration and education projects. They have acted as incentives to form civic partnerships among watershed associations, school and youth groups, museums and nature centers, sporting and fishing associations, local businesses and farmers groups, and local, state, and federal agencies. Some partnerships have specifically aimed to introduce sustainability practices among farmers, architects, developers, and other business and professional associations. Others have aimed at transforming the behavior of individual citizens (for example, regarding use of lawn fertilizers and pesticides) and inculcating a civic ethic of environmental responsibility. The small grants have also enabled national organizations and resource centers, such as the River Network, Izaak Walton League, and the Center for Watershed Protection, to offer training and other assistance, in turn enhancing their own capacities. The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act of 2000 authorizes such grants for "cooperative tributary basin strategies" and "locally based protection and restoration programs or projects" that complement them. From 1999 to 2005, these grants totaled $14.3 million, supported 439 projects, and leveraged an additional $43 million from other sources.

The National Estuary Program has also lent significant support for local watershed groups and their partners. Management conferences on the individual estuaries have made public involvement and education an important part of their comprehensive conservation and management plans. Almost all of the twenty-eight estuary programs have used some of their EPA funding for small grants programs, and some have done so ambitiously and systematically. The Puget Sound Action Team, for instance, has given more than $6 million in public involvement and education funding to more than three hundred projects since 1987 and serves as a clearinghouse for a range of other grants available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sea Grant, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Washington state environmental agencies, and other organizations. The Long Island Sound Study has done likewise through its small grants and Sound Futures Fund, actively aggregating funding from many sources. The EPA has also supported Restore America's Estuaries, a national coalition of citizen groups, although RAE's major regrant program (Communities Actively Restoring Estuaries), available to groups in all 130 estuaries, is funded through NOAA. Restoration through these and similar grants typically involves citizens directly in thousands of hours of hands-on work: planting trees for riparian buffers on streams or eelgrass in the estuary, removing nonnative species, and raising oysters in schools and transplanting them to the bay.

The Clean Water Action Plan of 1998, developed by EPA in conjunction with seven other federal agencies and the Tennessee Valley Authority, helped to broaden the agency's approach to building the capacity of watershed groups. With funding from this plan, EPA selected the River Network to develop a Watershed Assistance Grant (WAG) program, similar in many ways to the small grants for estuaries. The River Network, established in 1988, became the nation's premier national network of watershed groups, with 280 local partners a decade later and some 700 today. It is the sponsor of the watershed movement's annual River Rally conference and celebration. It is also one of the key national sponsors of the Citizens' Agenda for Rivers, and it developed and maintains the national directory of watershed conservation groups. The River Network's strategic vision has been to help establish robust watershed organizations capable of forming effective local and state partnerships for monitoring, protection, and restoration on each of the two thousand major watersheds across the country, with a statewide organization in every state. Its regional "watershed innovators workshops" in the mid-1990s (funded by the Kendall Foundation) promoted intensive learning from statewide networks and agency programs. EPA's WAG program further enabled the River Network to leverage this learning and expand its network further, as the applications for funding--775 in the first year alone--far outran both EPA's and the River Network's expectations. The grants were used to enable groups to develop their capacity to do watershed assessment and planning, build sustainable organizations and multi-stakeholder partnerships, educate the general public, and do work that made visible improvements to watersheds. Capacity building, however, was the main focus, not just project work. The River Network raises dues and consulting fees from its partner organizations, as well as grants from various private donors, but EPA and other government agencies have been important sources for building its long-term capacity.

When the WAG program ended, EPA's Targeted Watershed Initiative--which funds a variety of innovative partnerships, nominated by governors (or tribal officials) in a competitive process--set aside funding for three national capacity-building intermediaries (River Network, Center for Watershed Protection, and International City/County Management Association), along with two regional ones (Southeast Watershed Forum and University of Alaska Anchorage). Together they held training during the first two years for more than two hundred watershed groups and several thousand other professionals and local officials. In 2006, this set-aside for capacity building was more than doubled (from $0.7 million per year over the three-year period of 2003-2006 to $1.6 million annually). The River Network has continued to leverage this EPA funding to attract additional funding from foundations and state agencies to begin to build an integrated national training and support system with state and local training partners. This National Watershed Health Project, with four pilot states (Colorado, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Ohio) as of early 2006, promises far more comprehensive skill assessment and training for sustainable watershed work than ever before.

As a result of the Clean Water Action Plan, EPA has also designated an extra $100 million in Section 319 grants for states to use in watershed work (which states must match at a sixty-forty federal-to-state ratio). Of course, only a fraction of this goes to building civic capacity, but it does help states fund watershed forums, participatory planning, public education, and hands-on restoration work. Recognizing that the agency's current budget constraints limit how much direct funding can go to watershed groups, OWOW's Watershed Financing Team has begun to extend much greater assistance with tools and training to help groups become more financially sustainable. Here the experience of the NEPs has been critical, because NEP has required programs to account for how much funding they have been able to leverage with federal dollars. In addition, EPA's university-based network of Environmental Finance Centers has developed a Webcast course on financing for the Watershed Academy, as has the River Network, which first aired to hundreds of participants in early 2006.

These investments in capacity building have not always come easily. Richard Fox, founder of the Colorado Watershed Assembly and a River Network partner, told me, "We had to push very hard with EPA for training.... Not the types of training they think we need, but the kinds that the watershed groups themselves think we need.... And we have had to hammer them on how much more resources are needed. We could easily add another zero [that is, multiply by ten] to the set-aside." Diane Regas, director of OWOW, provided the critical agency leadership, according to Fox. Alert to the grassroots concerns that had emerged from the regional Watershed Roundtables and the National Watershed Forum in 2001, Regas was unwilling to shy away from hard truths that she thought her staff needed to hear. She thus convened two watershed dialogues, one in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 and the other at the River Rally in Colorado later that spring. At the headquarters meeting, twenty or so leaders from the watershed movement met with about a dozen EPA watershed staff; another twenty to thirty OWOW staff listened on the periphery of the conference table. Staff sought feedback on the tools they had been developing, such as the Web-based watershed planning tool, and how to make the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) program serve integrated watershed strategies. But, as Fox put it with a certain dramatic flair, "Diane turned us loose on them. They didn't talk at us, but really listened. From that we got a critical mass of people at OWOW behind what we were saying."

Some of the possible synergies in capacity building among the EPA headquarters and region, state environmental departments, and local watershed associations are evident in Colorado. In 1994, senior leadership in Washington initiated the Community-Based Environmental Protection (CBEP) strategy across the agency. Seven staff from Region 8--the most from any region--volunteered to become CBEP coordinators across their region of six states (and twenty-seven sovereign tribal nations) and to work with the national CBEP network, which included agency staff and civic innovators, to share best practices. Region 8 reorganized to support place-based work through its newly created Ecosystem Protection Program. Responding to EPA framing and funding incentives, the Colorado Water Quality Control Division reorganized around the watershed approach in 1997 and established four regional (within-state) watershed coordinators. Independently organized watershed groups, which numbered only six in 1996, grew quickly to forty by 1998 and then established the statewide Colorado Watershed Assembly as their coalition. The assembly sponsors training, an annual conference, and an attractive and highly influential annual report on the state of Colorado's watersheds and the work of its watershed groups. It has lobbied successfully in the state house and collaborated with the state water conservation board and water-quality control commission to create and manage a grant program for watershed groups funded through a state income tax refund check-off program, which in turn has been used by local groups as a match source for various federal grants. The new legislation creating the watershed license plate does likewise and gives each watershed group an added incentive to do outreach. Whereas the assembly is governed by representatives of independent citizen groups, its committees include state and federal staff working together toward collaborative solutions-even though, in Fox's words, "Sometimes we have to push back hard against the good old boys in some of the [state] agencies."

Learning Networks

As DeWitt John clearly demonstrated in Civic Environmentalism, civic environmental innovation depends on the emergence of horizontal learning networks that can develop and test practical knowledge across institutional and professional boundaries. We should not, however, underestimate the direct and intentional role that EPA itself has played in nurturing such networks. Though not alone among federal environmental agencies in this regard, EPA has made critical contributions to catalyzing learning among extensive networks of watershed groups, schools and universities, professional scientists, and regulators across the federal system. The watershed movement's networks for technical and organizational training, deliberative planning, and hands-on restoration work, as we have just seen, have received critical support from EPA in myriad ways. Development of the field of volunteer water-quality monitoring, which has been essential to both regulatory programs and place-based ecosystem strategies, is an important example of how the agency has become a catalyst for network learning.

Local groups, of course, have always constituted the driving force. From the late 1960s onward, citizens who were frustrated by inadequate local data for their particular stream or lake, or who were suspicious of information given to them by public agencies, began to generate their own data through hands-on monitoring. National groups such as the Izaak Walton League lent assistance with rudimentary testing equipment and methods manuals as early as 1969. But much of this work remained technically primitive, and the league's Save Our Streams (SOS) Program, despite the organization's four hundred or so local chapters, was moribund when Karen Firehock took over in 1984. The young Firehock, who initially took the job because she couldn't afford to stay in college full-time, began by answering a huge backlog of mail from local groups. She then proceeded to raise foundation money to enable the Department of Natural Resources in Ohio, which had quite a few "Ike" chapters, to hire a volunteer monitoring coordinator to respond to the requirements of the scenic rivers program. The state provided the biologists, who contributed significantly to the technical sophistication of SOS's sampling of macroinvertebrates (bugs). Firehock and the local trainers and volunteers, however, helped modify some of the biologists' own methods and added to the skill set with local knowledge. The professionals' training, she said, was often "too narrow ... Their field skills were not as good as the volunteer monitors'.... We are always looking at the big picture, and they often missed connections and had to call in other specialists." That monitoring is not just about samples was vividly demonstrated during a volunteer training several years later. Firehock recalled: "I was telling them to talk to the old timers. 'Some have lived on these creeks their whole lives. Ask them where they dump their trash.' And just then, two old men came out of the woods and told the group that old railroad ties with arsenic were buried over there, where they were pointing. The volunteers said I had planted these guys! But I insisted, 'No!' And I really didn't!"

What enabled Firehock and her tiny staff to bring this model from Ohio to Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and then to many other states was EPA funding and technical assistance that became available to states and estuary programs through the Clean Water Act Amendments of 1987. Though volunteer monitoring was mentioned nowhere in the act, staff in the newly created National Estuary Program recognized its importance, as did those administering the NPS grants, which have a major educational component. In 1987, EPA certification of the Chesapeake Bay Citizens Monitoring Program's quality assurance project plan (QAPP) lent official legitimacy to volunteer monitoring, and the 1989 guidelines for the biannual 305(b) state reports explicitly identified it as a potential source of data. But democratic values and ideas mattered as well. As the EPA's point person on Capitol Hill for the 1987 amendments noted, "EPA periodically convened blue ribbon panels on monitoring and always concluded that there was never enough money for robust [i.e. professional] monitoring. But some of us in the Office of Water had a Jeffersonian model in mind. Don't forget, I was trained as a political scientist."

As a result of EPA support, other citizen monitoring organizations entered the field or brought their work to the national level, notably the River Watch Network in New England (now part of the River Network). Innovators in the Office of Water began to develop a strategy to catalyze learning through interlocking networks at every level of the federal system.

This emergent strategy included a variety of components. First, in 1988 EPA began to sponsor biennial national citizen monitoring conferences, in conjunction with a set of rotating national and regional partners, as among them the Izaak Walton League and the Chesapeake Bay Alliance. These conferences have been enormously spirited gatherings-" the Mecca for information sharing," says Seba Sheavly, who oversees the Ocean Conservancy's training program for volunteer monitoring. In addition, these conferences enable citizen groups, state officials, professional scientists, and equipment vendors to build face-to-face relationships that help them learn from each other more directly. EPA regional offices have also sponsored many similar conferences and trainings. With budget cutbacks, the national volunteer conferences became less frequent, and they now have merged into the interagency National Water Quality Monitoring Council's biennial conferences. The NWQMC meetings have much less of a movement-building atmosphere, but they encourage even greater interaction among the volunteer and professional monitoring communities and further legitimate the work of citizens.

Second, to promote building networks for learning, EPA sponsored a periodic national survey and directory of monitoring groups. In addition to yielding a valuable overview of the emerging field, especially in its critical first decade, the directory fostered ongoing communication among local groups across states and regions.

Third, EPA has funded publication and distribution of the "Volunteer Monitor," the national newsletter of volunteer watershed (originally, water quality) monitoring. Eleanor Ely, who edited the proceedings of the first two biennial conferences and developed the national directory, made a proposal to EPA to coedit a newsletter in conjunction with a rotating citizens' group that developed innovative technical methods and metrics, as well as strategies for mobilizing and training volunteers and students and for building sustainable partnerships among civic groups and public agencies. A microbiologist working in medical and research laboratories in the 1980s, Ely switched careers to become a writer and editor for Rhode Island Sea Grant at the University of Rhode Island, home of an ambitious volunteer monitoring program. After working on the initial issue of the "Volunteer Monitor" with Adopt-a-Beach in Seattle, she began editing the newsletter from San Francisco. She developed an editorial board drawn from leading national, state, local, and university-based monitoring groups, as well as state agencies and the EPA itself. Using lists from SOS, the River Watch Network, and other groups as well as EPA lists of local and state government staff across the country, she quickly developed a print distribution of ten thousand, which has grown to twice that size, in addition to the online availability of the "Volunteer Monitor" on the EPA Website. For Ely, the editorial meetings served as an opportunity to build regional networks, since the coeditorial group for each issue was expected to convene other citizen monitors and coordinators from the area to plan the issue and contribute articles. Budget cutbacks have not permitted Ely to travel as much; she thus cannot convene such meetings. But she views her meticulous editorial work through the lens of a civic network builder. With continued EPA support (in 2005 a mere $70,000 per year), the "Volunteer Monitor" remains the hub of a decentralized network of citizen groups and state programs, where professional practitioners and lay citizens share best practice in a way that creatively melds laboratory science and local knowledge.

A fourth component of its learning network strategy has been EPA's sponsorship of the development, publication, and distribution of an array of methods manuals by civic and watershed groups, from the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay and the Ocean Conservancy to River Watch Network and League of Women Voters Education Fund. Volunteer water monitoring manuals now cover the full range of estuaries, wetlands, lakes, streams, wellheads, and urban water systems.

To get a sense of the meticulous combination of technical knowledge and civic practice represented by EPA's collaborative work with some of these organizations and their local partners, one should take a look at Volunteer Estuary Monitoring by Ronald Ohrel, Jr., and Kathleen Register, a methods manual developed in partnership with the Ocean Conservancy--396 pages on all manner of project planning, organizing volunteers, managing safety, and testing the broadest spectrum of nutrients, oxygen, toxins, alkalinity, temperature, salinity, turbidity, bacteria, submerged aquatic vegetation, and other living organisms. The process for developing the manual, however, is as significant as the product. With funding from the EPA, the Ocean Conservancy has been conducting regular trainings for local networks of volunteer groups since 1998 in all twenty-eight of the national estuary programs--some six hundred groups in all, as of 2005. As Sheavly commented, EPA support has "enabled us to operate as a network builder where some activity already exists. We train them [volunteer groups] in data collection, technical methods, but also in fundraising, organization, and media presentations so that the data can be presented to the public in understandable formats. And the Ocean Conservancy is enriched by their work as well. These are all shared resources." During the development of the second edition of the manual, the Ocean Conservancy worked with experts in each technical area of monitoring. It shared the draft with all its local training participants over a two-year period. Prominent volunteer monitoring organizations around the country contributed case studies. The final draft was reviewed by a number of leading practitioners from these groups, as well as from universities and Cooperative Extension services, local and state agencies, EPA regional and headquarters offices, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, most of whom had developed long-term relationships through EPA-sponsored activities. From local knowledge and organizing methods on one end to laboratory science and rigorous quality assurance technique on the other, this spectrum of capable individuals has continued to produce and refine a form of democratic knowledge indispensable to the stewardship of estuaries throughout the country.

State agencies were initially quite skeptical of volunteer monitoring, and perhaps one-third of them still remain resistant. This arises from a variety of sources. First and foremost is that agencies are prone to trust their own professional staff more than lay citizens. In addition, states with few professional monitors can feel that volunteer monitoring jeopardizes their capacity to perform core regulatory functions because it adds to their management burdens and raises quality assurance problems. Some resist sharing funds with citizen groups or see a threat to their jobs if volunteer monitoring spreads. Some states simply don't want citizen groups uncovering problems that could be politically contentious, as well as costly to correct. But the majority of states have come to embrace volunteer monitoring because they recognize it as a cost-effective way for them to address data requirements of the Clean Water Act. They simply cannot generate the needed quantity, type, and quality of data otherwise. EPA grants to the states, especially from the NPS program, have been critical to building capacity, and off-the-shelf data management systems have recently begun to lower the costs of collection, integration, reporting, and use. The volunteer monitoring network affords access to models and broad consultation. The volunteer monitoring office at EPA has rigorously addressed the issues of quality assurance with the full collaboration of the QA staff--"a bunch of sticklers, if ever there were ones," in the words of an EPA administrator. "There is always a struggle for dollars [for volunteer monitoring]. But no one [at headquarters] ever resisted due to the data quality issue or because volunteer monitoring was a threat to regulatory functions." With EPA headquarters' official guidance on quality assurance, and required regional office approval of a state quality assurance project plan (QAPP) as a condition for receiving funds, states have become generally enthusiastic about volunteer monitoring, and some very innovative.

EPA's Office of Environmental Education has complemented the Office of Water's volunteer monitoring program in important ways, since much environmental education in schools, nature centers, and youth organizations such as YMCAs and 4-H clubs involves hands-on service learning on water quality. In 1990, Congress passed the Environmental Education Act to bring greater coherence and support to this emerging field. The new office made grants to schools, universities, and nonprofits, as well as to states and local governments, to develop programs and curricula, and it established and funded several new institutional mechanisms for learning and network building across the field. The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF), chartered and funded by Congress as a nonprofit, leverages additional private funds to build the field. The National Environmental Education Advisory Council (NEEAC) is a citizen body that advises EPA, regularly assesses the field, and reports to Congress. The Environmental Education and Training Partnership (EETAP), funded through a cooperative agreement with EPA, is a consortium of national associations of educators, innovative projects, and university centers that furnishes training and leadership development to educators and assists in building state program capacity. EETAP also assists with development of professional certification, quality assurance, and program evaluation so that environmental education is scientifically accurate, pedagogically sound, and responsive to community needs. A core partner in EETAP has been the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), the premier association in the field. Founded in 1971 as a group of U.S. community college educators, NAAEE gradually expanded its individual and institutional membership base and then became trinational in 1983. Elaine Andrews, the former president and executive director of NAAEE who managed its growth in the years after the Environmental Education Act and during its five years (1995-2000) as lead partner of EETAP, noted that "EPA support has been absolutely essential to building the field as a whole, as well as to NAAEE itself." Grants from EPA, as well as the National Science Foundation, enabled NAAEE to do critical long-range planning to expand its member services in 1990, and its five-year, $9 million EPA grant to coordinate EETAP enabled development of its own training capacity and that of state environmental education associations and networks. NAAEE's annual conference has become the premier venue for sharing best practice.

EPA, of course, is not alone among federal agencies in providing support for volunteer monitoring; nor has its role been that of prime mover among states or citizen groups. Cooperative Extension, housed in the Department of Agriculture, has played an ambitious role since its 1992 national water-quality initiative, especially with its Volunteer Monitoring National Facilitation Project, which seeks to build a comprehensive system of support through land-grant universities. But EPA plays an indispensable role in catalyzing learning through the many local, state, and national associational and professional networks that have come to constitute a relatively well-integrated field. It has deployed its assets--grants, technical assistance, quality assurance oversight, legitimacy, and convening role--in a relatively strategic fashion over nearly two decades to enable ordinary citizens to share in the core work of generating the usable knowledge needed for active protection and restoration of watersheds.


Can a federal environmental regulator become a civic enabler? The experience of the EPA's watershed programs warrants a qualified yes. The agency still faces major challenges, to be sure, in refining its community-based work, bringing it to scale, and integrating it with regulatory (and market-based) programs. Transforming EPA organizational culture, building staff capacity in the regions, and catalyzing change at the state level will take a great deal more initiative and resources--and not just for watersheds but in other areas of EPA's work as well. But such challenges should not blind us to the achievements, especially in terms of core design principles and program components for supporting civic environmentalism. If EPA can find ways of building on these core components, aligning agency culture to better support them and investing further resources, a major shift in approach is possible.

The Office of Water has made genuine progress in refraining issues in terms of place-based watersheds and in integrating watershed principles into six core Clean Water Act programs evaluated by EPA's Office of Inspector General. They are the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), Nonpoint Source (NPS), Water Quality Monitoring, Water Quality Standards, and Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) programs. For instance, EPA has encouraged states to develop TMDLs on a watershed basis, rather than by individual water segments, in order to deal better with multiple dischargers, multiple pollutants, and nonpoint sources. ("Guidance" on watershed TMDLs, due out shortly, should certainly help.) EPA has also encouraged watershed-based permitting and water-quality monitoring through a rotating basin approach, as well as use of CWSRF for watershed-based NPS projects. Since 2002, the Section 319 grants program has set aside $100 million annually for states to develop and implement comprehensive watershed plans. Regional offices are being encouraged to develop game plans with watershed-based targets and measures for improvement, strategies for building the capacity of watershed organizations, and realignment of resources away from core regulatory programs to achieve such targets, if this proves necessary.

On the nonregulatory side, the Chesapeake Bay Program, National Estuaries Program, and other estuary and watershed strategies have incorporated policy design principles that foreground civic ownership and partnership in visioning and problem solving. OWOW has developed or sponsored an impressive set of organizational and data tools to help build civic capacity: multistakeholder management conferences, citizen advisory committees, Watershed Academy, geographic information systems, and volunteer monitoring protocols, as well as citizen planning, monitoring, and restoration manuals. OWOW has catalyzed and funded watershed management at the state level, as well as learning among networks of state innovators. It has funded local watershed groups through a range of matching grant programs and has made critical investments in building civic capacity through national and regional associations and training centers. Indeed, OWOW has been relatively strategic in developing the civic infrastructure of the watershed field as a whole, encouraging many types of partnership and catalyzing learning through networks of local citizens, national associations, professional practitioners, and agency personnel at all levels of the federal system. The Watershed Managers Forum of headquarters and regional staff, officially chartered in 2005, has begun to develop a revised strategy to further increase the capacity of local watershed groups. Without the strategic support of OWOW and the Office of Water generally, the civic infrastructure and practice of watershed work would be far less developed than it is today.

Even though EPA has built an impressive foundation for community-based work in watersheds, it faces significant challenges, large and small, if it is to help institutionalize civic environmentalism on solid ground. Among the major challenges are further integrating regulatory and civic approaches, making available significantly greater resources to help build the capacity of civic associations, and developing its own staff capacities to support collaborative, place-based work.

First, EPA needs to make considerably more progress in integrating regulatory and collaborative problem-solving strategies. Research across a range of environmental agencies clearly shows that regulatory hammers, actual or anticipated, can act as critical incentives for collaborative, multistakeholder, and community-based approaches. For instance, the Endangered Species Act, with its anticipated listing of species and court action, has been an important tool for motivating collaboration among diverse stakeholders and natural resource agencies. But regulatory hammers can also work at cross-purposes to collaboration. EPA has made real progress in integrating watershed principles into the six core regulatory programs of the Clean Water Act, for instance, but it still confronts many challenges. Facing court orders and consent decrees to set TMDLs for impaired waters under the Clean Water Act (which does not specify the geographic scale of TMDLs), states are tempted to ignore EPA encouragement to develop them through multistakeholder processes on a watershed basis, since this is slower and more complex. Some scholars, notably Mark Imperial and Timothy Hennessey, see TMDL regulatory requirements, which entail thousands of implementation plans, as overwhelming the capacity for collaborative watershed governance, generating further conflict, absorbing enormous resources, destroying valuable social capital, and indeed being "fundamentally inconsistent" with the collaborative approach. Others are more sanguine and point to clear examples of TMDLs sparking collaboration. Either way, it is clear that integrating key regulatory and collaborative watershed approaches, while building trust among state, region, and headquarters staff in the process, will not be easy, especially when budgets are tight or declining.

Second, EPA must provide significantly greater resources to build the capacity of civic associations if they are to live up to their potential for vigorous and sustained environmental problem solving. Of course, this is not a task for EPA alone, or just for other federal environmental agencies. Much capacity building takes place by mobilizing community assets (local skills, social capital, institutional relationships, volunteer time, individual donations), as well as funding and technical assistance from local and state governments and private foundations. But EPA (and other federal) funding, along with the legitimacy it brings, is essential in leveraging local and state resources for capacity building of every kind. Much progress has certainly been made over the past decade, but there is enormous unmet capacity relative to the tasks at hand. In the watershed arena, there are now several thousand watershed associations and kindred groups. Even so, 40 percent of existing watershed groups in 2005 did not have a budget, 45 percent were without an annual work plan, and 74 percent lacked a fundraising plan--a far cry from stable financing. Most watersheds do not yet have strong associations capable of complex analysis and planning, not to mention sustained collaboration with an array of state and local government partners, businesses, and other institutions. Most are not able to mobilize a substantial number of ordinary citizens for ongoing restoration work-or even broad ownership of the problem. Despite significant increments from Section 319 NPS funds, states still lack adequate resources to support participatory watershed planning at the county level, and recently Section 319 dollars have been targeted for severe cuts by Congress. Intermediary organizations such as the River Network and Center for Watershed Protection at the national level as well as various state and regional associations such as the Colorado Watershed Assembly and Southeast Watershed Forum will require substantially greater funding if they are to help build capacity effectively and broadly. AmeriCorps volunteers are another logical source for capacity building in this field. Indeed, virtually all academic scholars, agency practitioners, and watershed leaders, as well as EPA's Office of the Inspector General recognize that building the requisite skills and organizational capacity of watershed groups remains a major challenge requiring many years and substantially greater resources than have been devoted so far.

Third, EPA has to invest considerably more in developing its own staff capacities to support collaborative, place-based work. This challenge was recognized already in the Ecosystem Protection Workshop's "Edgewater Consensus" publication of 1994 and was elaborated in the EPA's Framework for Community-Based Environmental Protection in 1999, two major documents that have guided civic initiatives and culture change strategies in the agency. The challenge remains largely the same today and is widely acknowledged by those engaged in community-based work at headquarters and in the regions. Scholars with comparative though limited performance data (including Mark Imperial and Timothy Hennessey, and Paul Sabatier and colleagues) like-wise recognize the clear need to invest in staff capacity for advanced governance. If EPA is going to support community-based work effectively, it needs to carry out staff training to facilitate stakeholder involvement, holistic planning and assessment, public communication, and a host of related social science skills. It must recruit new staff with these skills and promote career tracks with genuine growth and status within the agency. Job descriptions and evaluations should incorporate such skills, rather than focusing so exclusively on legal, technical, and scientific ones. Of course, the agency recognizes that it cannot offer the requisite training, facilitation, and technical assistance according to a retail model but must primarily rely on wholesale, through recognized intermediary associations, institutes, and local and state government programs. But investing considerably more in its own staff capacities requires a culture change strategy within the agency that challenges the supremacy of narrow, rule-oriented compliance with national standards and focuses staff much more on how to facilitate complex civic governance in watersheds and communities. In August 2005, nongovernmental participants at the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation pressed hard on these issues, and EPA, along with several other agencies, has since been developing a plan to further build such competencies and hold managers accountable for them.

These challenges have their parallel in other parts of the EPA. For example, the Office of Environmental Justice, along with the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) and the Interagency Working Group on EJ, has worked energetically with leaders of the EJ movement and innovative community practitioners to develop a collaborative, problem-solving EJ model that represents a genuine paradigm shift from earlier emphasis on local resistance and legal action. But the civic capacity-building needs in poor and minority communities far outstrip the relatively small amount of funds that have so far been devoted to local partnerships. EJ is not a statutory program at EPA that can extend substantial funds to the states to help build such capacity, like Section 319 grants in the office of water. The multimedia Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) program has been especially energetic in learning from all of the community-based work at the agency (air, water, hazardous wastes, EJ, children's health) and conducting a high level of training and technical support for community partnerships, while also aiming to build a much larger network beyond those groups actually receiving agency grants. The CARE team (led by visionary senior policy administrator Robert Brenner, initially a skeptic of the community-based approach) understands the need for careful but persistent culture change at the agency to support genuine participation and partnership at the community level. But although CARE has been enviably successful in getting increased budgets in very tight times, these budgets remain quite modest relative to civic capacity-building needs and the number of worthy applicants.

In recent years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, EPA's Office of Water (and especially its Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds) has become innovative and effective in helping to build the capacity of civic organizations to share in the enormously complex work of protecting and restoring our nation's watershed commonwealths. However imperfect and incomplete its efforts to date, EPA has developed critical design components--funding, training, network catalyst, technical assistance, data systems, management models, regulatory alignment--that make it increasingly possible for citizens to step up to the plate, not just as advocates and protesters but as skilled and effective coproducers of public goods and usable knowledge. The agency has been engaged in reinventing itself along many fronts in order to fulfill its core regulatory mission of "protecting human health and the environment," but perhaps it has also been discovering, as it were, its "civic mission" to help build the capacity of citizens, communities, and diverse stakeholders to engage in active stewardship and collaboration toward these ends.


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Carmen Sirianni is professor of sociology and public policy at Brandeis University.
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