Thinking Like a Watershed

Katie Michels and Bill Roper researched how communities in Vermont and beyond have worked to build a watershed identity. The white paper below was written for our 6 watershed resilience planning and action grantees. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions for how to help Vermont communities foster a sense of watershed identity. 

Residents of the mad river valley plan to adopt stormwater mitigation actions. 

Residents of the mad river valley plan to adopt stormwater mitigation actions. 

Thinking Like a Watershed
Coordinated inter-municipal planning and action around water resources are rare in Vermont, even though climate change-induced disasters like Hurricane Irene illustrate the imperative for upstream and downstream communities to work together. As Matt McKinney, a natural resources planning expert, states: “Increasingly, the territory of the land use, natural resource, and environmental issues we face transcends the legal and geographic reach of existing jurisdictions and institutions.” Recognizing that watershed thinking and approaches are important and challenging aspects of your work, we spoke with a number of groups in Vermont and beyond who have engaged in building a watershed identity. They shared strategies that we think may be of help to you as you continue your projects.

Challenges to Watershed Planning and Action in Vermont
Vermont has a strong tradition of local governance, with selectboards, conservation commissions, and planning commissions working on an individual town scale. This makes bridging town identities tricky. This challenge gets even harder when residents of some decentralized Vermont towns don’t even strongly identify with their own towns!

“Getting people to identify themselves as a watershed community and act in a selfless manner to accrue benefits of intangible spatial and temporal scales is a complex problem,” said Vermont Rivers Program Manager Mike Kline. Mike Kline and Matt McKinney agree that perhaps most challenging is the fact that an identity cannot be imposed, but instead has to match how local people view their own place.

John Little, of the Missisquoi River Basin Association, said that he thinks of Vermont as a land-based state. Many more Vermonters make their living from the state’s land than the state’s waters, and as a result identify more with Vermont’s land features than its bodies of water. He felt therefore that a critical part of building a watershed identity is strengthening understanding of how land-use choices affect watershed issues. For instance, how can we help forest landowners see how their actions have impacts on waterways downstream of their land?

Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs) are one mechanism for inter-town action and coordination, although their boundaries are generally not defined by watershed considerations. RPCs offer some potential for promoting watershed thinking but their influence can be limited since they don’t have much in the way of regulatory teeth, they have limited funding, they can’t always break down town silos, and they are not directly geared to watersheds. Vermont is also a state with scarce funding resources, which limits towns’ ability to spend additional funds to support actions outside of their individual boundaries.

Though political and watershed boundaries often don’t match up, we need to collaborate across political boundaries to address watershed issues. Planning and acting as a watershed now will reduce the costs of climate-change induced natural disasters later.

Opportunities for Building a Watershed Identity
In order to build a watershed identity, groups we spoke with had to consider issues of scale, how to tap into pre-existing identities, what issues may exist to help spark interest, how to engage community members through education, and how to “institutionalize” relationships to perpetuate long-term thinking and action. Importantly, each initiative we learned about differed because there is no “cookie cutter” approach to watershed-scale initiatives.

The scale of a watershed collaborative should not be pre-determined, but rather should build upon existing local institutions and identities. As political scientist Chris Klyza said, “I cannot offer specifics for all of Vermont, since the wisest scale and boundaries must be determined by people living in these watersheds.” For instance, the town of Bristol, VT, crosses three small watersheds. Splitting Bristol by its hydrological boundaries would not correspond well with the town’s political and social boundaries. Instead, a watershed identity should build upon both hydrological and geographical boundaries and social and political norms.

Lyn Munno, Executive Director of Watersheds United Vermont, said that many Vermont watershed groups define their area of focus over a broad geography and then undertake projects with significant, localized impacts. This is an interesting twist on the suggestion by Mike Kline that groups should work on a small scale (i.e. a sub-watershed) and then gradually build the work (and watershed identity) out into a larger area. For either approach, it is important to maintain a watershed focus. As Mike Kline commented: “If you do local projects without the larger watershed umbrella, it will be harder to get people to come together down the line.”

 The message is clear that watershed initiatives should build onto residents’ pre-existing conceptions of their landscape. Important early questions include: which natural features are most present in residents’ sense of identity? When does it make sense to build a river-based identity, rather than a watershed-based identity? The answers to this question depend on the place: Lyn Munno suggested that Montpelier identifies strongly with the Winooski River, while many of the towns in Addison and Chittenden County feel more connected to the Lake Champlain Watershed. Both river- and watershed-based identities are important: a river-based identity can foster action in specific areas along rivers; a watershed-based identity is important so that all residents, particularly landowners living upstream of a river, recognize their role in the watershed, and can understand the impact of their actions.

In some places, it might make sense to build an identity defined by other landscape characteristics. For instance, mountain ranges bound a watershed: can highly-visible mountain topography offer an opportunity to build an identity? Corrie Miller, of Friends of the Mad River, offered this when talking about her Mad River Valley project: 

We certainly have a strong “Mad River Valley” identity. The problem is three-fold. Most people don’t know what a watershed is, so using that terminology [of a watershed identity] is immediately off-putting and “jargony.” Also, Duxbury and Moretown are often not considered part of the Valley so using that term can be seen as exclusionary to members in our Taskforce. And, “Valley” also can be understood to include only “lowlands” and exclude headwater reaches, like the entirety of Fayston. I’ve erred on the side of trying to use our language to educate people about watersheds but also to expand their definition of “Valley” to include Moretown and Duxbury and also ridges to the river. So, depending on the context of whatever I’m trying to say, I use different words. We went with “Mad River Valley” in our tagline to avoid jargon and because I think pairing it with “Ridge to River” and “Duxbury and Moretown” is a subtle step towards re-definition of both “Valley” and “watershed.”

Marty Illick, of the Lewis Creek Association, said that it is important to tap into and build a watershed identity upon existing “warm spots” where people are already thinking together. Mary Russ, of the White River Partnership, is tapping into the “Quintown” identity in the Upper White River. She related how a number of social service agencies and the Senior Center serve all five towns in the Upper White River, and refer to themselves as the “Quintowns.” These five towns don’t think of themselves as part of the Upper White River, so an identity like the Upper White River Watershed Partnership didn’t resonate. But when Mary started referring to the Quintown Partnership, community members better identified with this collection of towns as a whole. Chris Klyza suggests that unified school districts could be an existing Vermont identity to build onto. Many of Vermont’s school districts encompass multiple towns and some align with watershed boundaries.

Many ideas and actions for building a watershed identity involved education and community engagement efforts. Partnering with schools can be a good way to educate both school children and their families about watershed dynamics. Groups like the Lewis Creek Association have engaged school teachers and students as part of ongoing educational efforts. Marty Illick found that stream restoration projects with high schoolers were a particularly effective strategy for getting students into the river to understand their place in the watershed. These projects allowed students to help determine where they can make improvements to increase resilience.

Education can be quite simple. For both Matt McKinney and Lyn Munno, signs announcing the boundaries of a watershed (i.e. Welcome to the Winooski Watershed, or You are Now Leaving the Otter Creek Watershed) raise awareness of where people are in a landscape. Matt McKinney has found that Google Maps offers a dynamic physical illustration of a watershed’s boundaries, and that viewers can learn and engage by zooming in and out to see how watersheds bound and relate to the places that they know and identify with. John Little, of the Missisquoi River Basin Association, thinks that recreation along a river, like canoeing, allows people to experience where and how a river flows.

Physical illustrations and maps are another tool for engaging community members in their watersheds. Chris Klyza spoke of how community mapping exercises can illustrate how community members view their own place, and the social boundaries that bound their own mental maps. Community mapping exercises can illustrate unexpected conceptions of a place that could be built upon to form a watershed identity. Building an identity around watershed boundaries that doesn’t match with strong, pre-existing social conceptions of a place is an upstream battle (pun intended!).

Another opportunity to educate about watershed boundaries comes from challenges like climate change and pollution. Climate change-induced storms result in flood events carrying large amounts of water downstream. The water’s path illustrates the interconnected flows between upstream and downstream towns in a watershed. Pollution also presents a physical illustration of how the negative impacts of upstream land use actions flow downstream. With appropriate leadership, these physical illustrations of connections can catalyze a shared desire to do something to improve upstream land use and resilience.

After catalyzing an identity, institutionalizing and sustaining the effort can be challenging. In the Rocky Mountains, Matt McKinney has advised towns to create regional plans, rather than town plans, to ensure coordination between town actions. In 1985, three towns in Vermont’s Mad River Valley established the Mad River Valley Planning District, which brings together representatives from Fayston, Waitsfield, and Warren to plan for actions across these towns. The Lewis Creek Association and White River Partnership are non-profits that play this coordinating role in their watersheds. Another idea was having neighboring town government representatives join the meetings of each other’s boards to provide updates on activities.  

In Conclusion
Many of the ideas and actions noted above have worked in individual watersheds because they have tapped into pre-existing local identities and institutions. While it is clear that building an identity at the watershed level is a practice very much based in place and the people in that place, here are some ideas to consider as you move forward:

Explore the identities that already exist in your towns:

  • Ask residents to take part in a community mapping exercise, to illustrate their own conceptions of their place;
  • What geographic landforms do residents identify with: a river, a watershed, a valley, a mountain range?
  • Are there socially defined identities that align with watershed boundaries (i.e. school districts)?   
  • Does it make sense to start small (sub-watershed level) and build into a broader watershed, or to start larger (full watershed) and undertake local projects?
  • Remember that all identities and perspectives are equally valid.

Education and Community Engagement:  

  • Partner with local schools to educate schoolchildren about their watershed;
  • Signage: “Welcome to the xx watershed,” “You are now leaving the yy watershed.”
  • Use Google Maps to let residents explore their watershed boundaries;  
  • Promote recreation along rivers. Facilitate educational opportunities for paddlers and hikers to learn about the watershed (i.e. signage at access points);
  • Use challenges like climate change or pollution to physically illustrate interconnections within a watershed.

Institutionalizing a watershed identity:

  • Promote joint meetings between neighboring town governing bodies (i.e. selectboards, planning, or conservation commissions);
  • Explore whether road commissioners could talk about how to reduce the downstream or upstream impacts of pending projects.
  • Are there existing organizations that could take on this longer-term role?

Kim Smith offered this encouraging development from the Saxtons River Collaborative:

Prior to the project, there was no Saxtons River watershed identity, and flood mitigation was being addressed piecemeal through isolated projects. Aside from construction-material sharing following Tropical Storm Irene, there was relatively little inter-town collaboration on watershed issues despite a long history of flooding. In 2014 we initiated a series of conversations among a handful of towns and organizations and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. These initial conversations stemmed from the realization that the towns could not adequately address the very real threat of flooding as isolated entities. Conversations turned into formal meetings, participation grew, and a watershed identity was formed and nurtured through the work of a committed group of town officials, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. Through the Saxtons River Collaborative, new collaborations and opportunities have developed.

We hope you’ve found this research helpful. As groups engaged in building watershed resilience in Vermont, we look to you to document and share your own challenges, successes, and lessons learned through both stories and on-the-ground actions.


Katie Michels and Bill Roper, July 2016