Assessing the Influence and Effectiveness of Watershed Report Cards on Watershed Management: A Study of Watershed Organizations in Canada
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The concept and practice of watershed management have evolved since the early twentieth century and continue to change. Contemporary watershed management, as a means to improve environmental, social, and economic well-being, is generally accepted world-wide and is gaining popularity. Recognition of the ever-changing, complex, conflicting, and unpredictable nature of the forces that influence ecological and human systems has given rise to concepts and principles related to ecological or watershed health, sustainability, and good governance. Numerous terms have emerged to describe and explain contemporary watershed management processes that incorporate these concepts and principles, including ‘integrated’ and ‘sustainable’ watershed management. While there is growing consensus that integrated or sustainable watershed management should be practiced, there is little agreement on what these two terms mean and how they differ. The rational comprehensive or synoptic model is a widely-accepted normative framework to guide watershed management processes. This model presumes a ‘top-down’ linear, systematic, and logical sequence of steps characterized by complete knowledge of the issues and consequences of actions and dominated by rational decision making – circumstances that rarely happen in real life. Implementation gaps between theory and practice exist because of persistent and common challenges relating to complexity, conflict, uncertainty, and change in human and ecological systems. Failure to account for these factors has restricted the utility of this model for guiding watershed management processes, prompting questions about how the model might be adjusted to incorporate concepts and principles associated with watershed health, sustainability, and good governance. In response to the need to demonstrate progress towards watershed health and sustainability, a growing number of watershed organizations in Canada are pioneering the development of indicator-based assessment reports. The actual versus anticipated outcomes of watershed indicator reports and their existing and potential role in the watershed management process have not been systematically assessed or compared. A review of academic and professional literature and a mixed methods research approach comparing 13 case studies from 7 provinces across Canada were used to explore these knowledge gaps. A more in-depth investigation of two of the case studies, the Fraser Basin Council and the Humber Watershed Alliance, was also completed. Contextual factors influencing the practice of watershed management and the process used for developing watershed report cards are identified through an analysis of available documents. This information is supplemented with opinions gathered from 109 in-depth and semi-structured interviews/questionnaires. In addition, informants provided viewpoints regarding the usefulness, effectiveness, benefits, and value of watershed report cards, along with ideas about how they can be improved. This study concludes that while sustainable watershed management (SWM) and integrated watershed management (IWM) are closely aligned concepts, the distinguishing factor is scope. The primary goal of SWM is environmental, social, and economic sustainability within a watershed unit, whereas the central focus of IWM is the protection and/or restoration of water and land resources within a watershed to sustain human well-being. In Canada, IWM rather than SWM is generally pursued. Nevertheless, sustainability is an ultimate goal of IWM. Sustainability principles are acknowledged, valued, and applied. This study concludes that IWM can play a significant role in supporting a broad sustainability agenda. This study contributes to a growing body of knowledge seeking to enrich the theory of watershed management and improve and streamline practice. To improve the utility of the rational comprehensive model for guiding contemporary watershed management, modifications are presented which include separate phases for visioning and learning and couch the process within an overall conceptual framework that balances management, research, and monitoring activities. These adjustments reflect the concepts of integration, collaboration, and shared learning and acknowledge the shift away from ‘command and control’ bureaucratic processes to collaborative ‘middle ground’ polycentric governance structures. Rather than focusing strictly on a sequence of steps and a prescribed process, the consideration of a series of context-specific questions is advocated to help scope and streamline processes to match stakeholder capacity, address issues of greatest concern, and sustain interest and enthusiasm. However, concerted effort is required to counteract competing and entrenched socio-political and economic doctrines and traditions. Monitoring, evaluating, and reporting are key components in the IWM process. Study findings reveal that watershed report cards in Canada are a fledgling tool and no standard approach exists. Each case-study watershed organization has a unique approach to selecting, organizing, and presenting indicators. As a result, report card styles and formats vary. Despite a general consensus that watershed report cards are worthwhile, expectations often exceed outcomes, and common traits which challenge their effectiveness exist. The usefulness and effectiveness of watershed report cards are hampered by several common shortfalls: (1) universal lack of consistent, spatially-specific, and timely data, (2) inconsistent measures and indicators between successive watershed reports, (3) ambiguous or non-existent goals, objectives, targets, and benchmarks, and (4) messages that are unclear, difficult to understand, or fail to resonate with the target audiences. The ‘lessons learned’ from an assessment of the attributes and perceived benefits of watershed report cards parallel those discovered for community indicator initiatives. Building on this research, recommendations for improvement include (1) focus on stakeholder issues of prime concern, (2) use consistent measures and indicators, (3) limit the number of indicators and simplify report card styles and formats, (4) select spatially explicit, temporally relevant, and science-based indicators and measures, (5) explain and illustrate major cause-effect linkages, (6) use the report card process to build a constituency of support, (7) incorporate marketing and outreach activities, and (8) introduce performance measures to assess efficiency and how well collective practice demonstrates sustainability principles. This study concludes that opportunities exist for improving watershed report cards and boosting their multi-purpose role as a predominant planning, assessment, advocacy, communication, learning, and research tool in support of IWM, and ultimately, sustainability.
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