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Rethinking Lake Organization Capacity

How do “wicked problems” get solved? How can we better understand the relationships between people, organizations, and lake health? What are good starting points for lake organizations that want to step up their game when it comes to protecting and restoring waterway health? UW and the Wisconsin DNR collaborated in 2017 to explore these questions and develop a model for understanding the connections between lake organization capacity and lake health using systems thinking, and now they are engaging with local lake associations and districts to develop new tools for enhancing community capacity.  

The effort began with an idea: get several DNR resource managers and university applied researchers together to think a bit more critically about the way we engage lake organizations in planning for lake protection and restoration. The team included Buzz Sorge, Mark Hazuga, and Brian Weigel from the DNR and Eric Olson, Nels Paulson, and Aaron Thompson from UW Extension lakes, UW Stevens Point, and UW Stout, respectively. The opportunity to collaborate and dig deep came about through ThinkWater, a national educational effort supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help people of all backgrounds and ages think and care deeply about water. ThinkWater applies systems thinking to existing water education and research efforts and by actively engaging, educating and empowering a world of Systems Thinkers to solve wicked water problems.

The wicked water problems in Wisconsin that drew this team together are evident in the numerous lakes and rivers in the state that fail to meet water quality standards. State, local and national programs have been working to restore water quality by working at the watershed and riparian scales, but millions of dollars spent on best management practices (BMPs) and restoration don’t always seem to be making much difference. For folks in Menomonie, lakes Tainter and Menomin experience harmful algal blooms often enough to impair recreational use of the waters. These conditions are driven largely by nutrients that load into the lakes from the entire Red Cedar River basin. For all of the work that has been accomplished in the basin through BMPs, nutrient management plans, wastewater plant improvements, and stream restoration, the lake is still far from ideal. 

The ThinkWater experience gave the DNR and university participants an online tool for mapping out the problem of unhealthy watersheds using a formulation of systems thinking summarized in the 2015 book Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems by Derek and Laura Cabrera. The system mapping tool (Plectica) helped the team see the distinctions and relationships between numerous parts of physical watersheds. Many decades of research and data collection have vastly improved our understanding of the connections between the landscape and surface waters. Now that the DNR has identified and brought into regulation “point” sources of water pollution such as factories and wastewater treatment plants, the overall effort is focusing on watershed management. In a nutshell, we know that the characteristics of the land (soils, slopes, topography, land use, etc.) directly and indirectly influence the quality of water in streams, rivers and lakes. The primary “thing” connecting the landscape and surface water quality is runoff. BMPs and restoration activities can mitigate the harmful impacts of polluted runoff on surface waters. simplified_lakes_team_system.png

While seemingly simple, the relationship between landscape and surface water quality can become dynamic and somewhat unpredictable. For example, a BMP that allows for greater stormwater infiltration near the headwaters of a stream helps reduce the extreme fluctuations in that stream’s flow volume. A more consistent flow may support healthier vegetation along the stream’s edge downstream from where the BMP was installed, and those plants in turn will limit stream bank soil erosion and further enhance water quality in receiving rivers and lakes. DNR and University researchers have greatly enhanced our understanding of these dynamic relationships through higher resolution watershed models, and we are better than ever at identifying where and how to intervene on the landscape to obtain the greatest effect from our efforts. This greater understanding has led to a somewhat challenging realization: all of our work so far to restore streams, rivers and lakes still falls short of the task at hand. 

The Yahara chain of lakes in Dane County illustrate this phenomenon. Lake Mendota is often heralded as one of the most thoroughly studied lakes in the world, sitting on the shores of the University of Wisconsin - Madison. State, county, and local governments, as well as numerous lake and watershed organizations, have been working hard to monitor and restore the Dane County lakes and the waterways that feed into them, but they are still short of their goals. A 2012 plan presented by the Clean Lakes Alliance calls for a 50% reduction in phosphorus entering the entire system of lakes, which translates to preventing 46,000 pounds of this nutrient from running off the landscape annually. The plan calls for $130 million in new urban and rural actions to achieve water quality goals in a 20 year timeframe. 

This example highlights the scale and scope of the issue, as well as the potential tractability of the watershed problem through greater lake organization capacity. While $130 million is by any measure a lot of money, the Clean Lakes Alliance has been serving as fundraiser, convener and motivator, bringing together an array of people and partnerships to leverage resources towards the nutrient reduction goal. Their 2016 State of the Lakes report summarized recent accomplishments: “Farmers, especially in the Lake Mendota watershed, have partnered with Yahara Pride Farms, Dane County, and Yahara WINS to put in place improved cropping, tillage, and field management practices to divert significant amounts of phosphorus.” They estimate that the farmland practices alone reduced nearly 5,000 pounds of phosphorus annually from entering the lakes. These and other accomplishments have created a positive feedback loop in Dane County, where partners are viewing the lakes as a worthwhile investment and are committing themselves to further actions, including a recent announcement by County Executive Joe Parisi to invest $12 million over four years to remove legacy sediment from streams that empty into the lakes. 

When the ThinkWater team tried to bring the Dane County experience into our systems map, we realized that we needed to include the social components and relationships that directly and indirectly influence the scale and scope of BMPs and restoration activities that happen in a watershed. We drew on the research of Mae Davenport from the University of Minnesota who has focused on community capacity to address watershed issues. Mae’s system includes four distinct types of capacity: Member, Relational, Organizational, and Programmatic. These four facets of capacity are themselves mutually reinforcing, but they are also embedded in places where achieving successes in watershed management can feed additional capacity back into local organizations. Put succinctly, success begets further success.  

Our team then came to several conclusions. First. Local and state government alone will not be capable of providing all the resources needed to implement the scale and scope of BMPs and other restoration actions needed to reach water quality goals in Wisconsin. The price tag across the state is easily in the billions of dollars. The status quo of voluntary actions and existing programs in urban and rural areas is also insufficient to get us where we want and need to be. Secondly, Local lake organizations have demonstrated that they can be important motivator and funders for getting more improvements on the landscape, but they too may be limited by their own member, relational, organizational or programmatic capacity. As a result, Wisconsin needs to invest more time and energy into measuring and enhancing community capacity to support watershed restoration, the “applied social science” side of our complex system. This investment should be commensurate with the time and effort spent understanding the bio-geo-physical part of the system if we want to move beyond just understanding watersheds and deeper into restoring them. 

We are laying the groundwork for this shift towards capacity building in several ways. Aaron Thompson from our team has created a simple “score yourself” tool that lake organization members can use to gain a sense of how much capacity they have in each of the four facets. We have piloted this tool twice through Lake Leaders and found it to be a robust and accurate method for gaining a snapshot of capacity, and we plan to use the tool more often through workshops and online programming. We are also working with lake associations to create simple guides for those who wish to enhance their organization’s capacity. We have several such guides on the Extension Lakes website and will slowly be introducing more. We encourage you to use them and share your experience with us. We will also begin including a regular feature in our quarterly Lake Tides newsletter- the Capacity Corner- to highlight capacity building resources and share real world experiences from lake organizations. Last but not least, there is growing acceptance in the Wisconsin DNR that these capacity building efforts could and should be better supported through the surface water grants program and the Department’s Total Maximum Daily Load implementation plans. 

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