Community engagement for tackling water pollution

by Emily Green

Emily is a writer, editor and research at the Center for Changing Landscapes at the University of Minnesota.

Minnesota’s vexing nonpoint source (NPS) water pollution problem is widely known. Among the troubling statistics, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has reported that approximately 40% of state water bodies are impaired. Technical and financial solutions are typically the first-line strategies for addressing water pollution but social scientist and professor Mae Davenport maintains a different approach is needed. She argues that NPS is fundamentally a “social” problem, driven by the myriad individual decisions and behaviors of land users across the state. Her research focuses on the values and motivations that drive citizens to voluntarily engage in water protection behaviors. She also explores the importance of “community capacity,” or the combination of individual and social will, resources, and organizational capacity that is necessary to effectively tackle local environmental problems. 

Todd Kavitz (right), from Scott SWCD, speaking with Dave and Jean Sticha (left) at the 2012 “Thank You” event for landowners who implemented conservation practices. The Stichas installed a demonstration rain garden at their landscaping business.

Davenport recently collaborated with Paul Nelson of Scott County Watershed Management Organization, and Troy Kuphal of Scott Soil and Water Conservation District, to author the book Inspiring Action for Nonpoint Source Pollution Control: A Manual for Water Resource Protection (Freshwater Society 2017). Its aim is to help natural resource professionals work more effectively on NPS problems through engaging local community members, building trust, and improving community capacity. The authors present a framework for assessing and building community capacity for water quality management. They also highlight on-the-ground stories from Scott County, where an engagement-focused NPS management program has resulted in more than 700 conservation practices implemented by individuals across the watershed and the removal of several local water bodies from the US EPA’s “impaired waters” list. 

Nelson and Kuphal started working with Davenport in 2011 following a period when declining farm income motivated many local landowners to remove land from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and return it to crop production. Recognizing the potential NPS exacerbation, they sought Davenport’s collaboration to survey landowners about their land management needs and motivations. Consequently, they opted to work on raising local incentive rates for filter strips and promoting policies that supported planting flexibility.

Davenport maintains that the work of understanding what motivates individual decision-making, and building community capacity for tackling local environmental problems is critical for natural resource professionals. “We can throw millions of dollars into traditional approaches to water pollution, but if land users aren’t motivated or empowered to make different choices in their day-to-day lives or businesses, and sustain those choices over time, any gains we make will be small and short-lived,” she stated.