Lessons Learned from the High Meadows Fund’s
2015-2017 Watershed Resilience Initiative
A PDF version of this report is available here.
The last six years have revealed how vulnerable Vermont is to flooding and damage from erosion. Many Vermonters live in river valleys, on winding dirt roads and mountain slopes. Our downtowns are often located along rivers, reflecting the early use of our waterways to power mills and factories. The devastating storms of 2011, both from Tropical Storm Irene and subsequent rains, showed again how suddenly any of us can lose our roadways, homes, and even our lives.
Global warming will increase the frequency and severity of heavy storms, putting Vermont at even greater risk. It is critical to consider our changing weather patterns, existing floodplains, and river corridors as we make decisions about how to manage our river corridors and make land-use decisions in our watersheds. These decisions we make affect more than our own homes. It is vital that we make these decisions together with our upstream and downstream neighbors. With memories of past storms in mind, the challenge now is to keep Vermonters active and invested in preparing for future floods and erosion.
In response to the threat of climate change, the High Meadows Fund launched an initiative to help communities collaborate to build more resilient watersheds. For the High Meadows Fund, resilience does not just mean the capacity to bounce back from stresses and disruptive events. Resilience is also the ability to plan and adapt ahead of those events, evaluating the risks and opportunities that lie ahead. High Meadows asked teams from different communities across six watersheds to think beyond town boundaries to identify priorities and start taking action.
In 2015, High Meadows funded teams in these watersheds:
Each team brought together people from multiple towns and partners with varied experience, expertise and interests. These teams set out to plan and act as a cohesive watershed— a big challenge in a state where land use decisions are mostly made at the very local level. This work looked different for each team, according to each watershed’s unique issues and opportunities. Teams sought to educate and engage their communities in large town forums and small classroom lessons. Teams guided their towns through planning and prioritizing projects to manage riverbanks, roads, and future development. Their work has been exciting to watch and it is still evolving.
High Meadows appreciates the lessons learned and challenges faced by these six watershed-scale teams in their efforts to build resilience. Though these 18-month projects are complete, we believe the impact of their work is still developing. We look forward to learning along with these projects as their community engagement work continues to take root. In 2017, we funded a second group of projects undertaking similar work in new watersheds. Here, we describe the lessons we learned from the work of these initial teams about what it takes to do this kind of intercommunity, interdisciplinary watershed action. We hope these lessons will be useful to other organizations, regional planning commissions, state government officials, and other funders.
Diverse partnerships are critical, but require effort.
A primary goal of this initiative was to bring together people within communities who do not always participate or collaborate. High Meadows encouraged the teams to involve planners, conservation commissioners, selectboard members, business people, farmers, foresters, teachers, anglers and others in order to identify and prioritize, together, what resilience-building actions were appropriate and feasible. Often it was through new or unexpected partnerships that projects reached key community members. The South Lake Watershed Partnership, for example, was encouraged by the enthusiasm of volunteer fire departments and emergency management officials to learn more about their watershed.
Many groups found it difficult to lead the broad outreach and inclusion effort that this type of community-based work entails. Project leaders had to balance making as many connections as possible with their limited capacity. Some teams had a hard time reaching beyond familiar participants, but partnerships helped team members make this work relevant to the different communities within a watershed.
It was important that projects not be led by just one champion, but a steering committee or group of partner organizations.
The formation of the Saxtons River Collaborative brought together town representatives, landowners, teachers, and others interested in watershed resiliency. The diverse group united people with local knowledge to technical experts. Town officials used their long-standing relationships with businesses and landowners to help the Collaborative reach deep into the participating communities. Conversely, when just one organization led the work, projects had problems winning wide public support and participation.
It was also tough, however, for project leaders to fully translate the varied input of a steering committee into action. “The challenge of a group this large,” said the Saxtons River Watershed Collaborative in its final report, “is that is has been difficult at times to meet all of the needs and interests of the members while staying within the directives and goals of the grant.” Despite these difficulties, diverse partnerships made for more effective projects. A strong network of organizations or a committed steering committee helped a project maintain momentum if a partner or key staffer left.
We recognize the intensity of effort required by regular outreach. Given the feedback from all our projects, we are convinced the time taken to develop a diverse group of partners, often in the form of a steering committee, paid off. In the short term, projects with strong partnerships exerted greater influence in their communities. We believe these partnerships will be critical in making this work stick over the long term.
Projects found it helpful to clearly divide responsibilities among partners. Within the Mill Brook Watershed Group, delegation played to the strengths of each partner. The Ottauquechee Natural Resources Conservation District and American Precision Museum were responsible for community engagement and outreach. The Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission, meanwhile, took responsibility for resiliency project prioritization and implementation.
In the Upper White River watershed, the Quintown Collaborative recognized that various partners, funders, and municipal bodies each had different reasons for supporting projects—riparian habitat, geomorphic compatibility, culvert condition, or criticality to transportation. To account for these many interests, the Collaborative developed a matrix to help guide their culvert replacement project prioritization. By cross-referencing multiple data sets and ranking these many priorities on one matrix, the partners could identify which projects were most important to all partners. As a result of considering many stakeholders, the project brought in new funding sources and greater support for culvert replacement projects.
“Resilience” is over-used and doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Applied in so many contexts, the word is losing relevance and power. The ways projects communicated their intentions and priorities proved critical. Projects tested different messages to figure out which were meaningful to their town leaders and community members.
Language was most effective when it tapped into communities’ pre-existing identities.
The White River Partnership originally labeled its area of focus the “Upper White River.” This just did not resonate. The Partnership noticed a variety of buildings and services in the region with the “Quintown” label— the people in the Upper White River watershed identified as residents of the “Quintown Valley.” The Partnership renamed their project the Quintown Collaborative. Almost immediately, their work gained greater recognition and interest.
Language can help people understand what up/downstream connections mean. The Friends of the Mad River wanted to tackle stormwater issues and started with a wonky moniker: the “Watershed-Wide Water Management Program.” Soon, the partners realized that many upland landowners distant from the Mad River did not see the connection between what they do in their forests and what happens to the river. In response, Friends of the Mad River renamed the project “Ridge to River” to unite upland and river valley residents and to help them understand that everything that happens in the watershed, from the mountaintops on down, has an impact on the health and power of the river.
Specific language is more effective than jargon at engaging community members. The Quintown Collaborative found that, when it stopped talking generally about “resilience” and began to talk about replacing culverts and protecting floodplains, “potential project partners supported the project unanimously and began to get involved in more meaningful ways.” Project leaders needed to get out of their technical mindsets to communicate with a specific, accessible vocabulary that was immediately relevant to the general public. They also found success when they developed specific messages for different target audiences.