Group photo of participants from Leadership for Midwestern Watersheds

New Survey Shows the Value of and Need for Investing in People for Clean Water

Human Capital blog series

By Craig Ficenec, Program Director at Sand County Foundation

Nearly a year into this pandemic, we are eager to reconnect with colleagues in-person. But even in the Before Times, many watershed professionals worked in relative isolation from their peers.

We know that projects at the small watershed scale are vital for improving water quality. But with project leaders spread across the Mississippi River basin under various employers, opportunities for professional development and peer networking are limited.

Since 2011, Sand County Foundation and partners have gathered watershed professionals to learn and network with their peers at our annual Leadership for Midwestern Watersheds events. To better understand needs and opportunities for building human capital to improve water quality, we organized an in-depth survey of over 100 watershed leaders in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

The findings of this survey can guide needed investment in a workforce of watershed coordinators across the Midwest.

The survey respondents are paid professionals focused on agricultural lands within concise watershed our county boundaries. Most are employed by county conservation districts or departments, non-profits, or state agencies. A majority have a background in environmental science, and some have expertise in agronomy, engineering, or social science. One-fifth have less than two years’ experience in their role, and nearly half have worked or grew up on a farm.

Our key findings demonstrate both clear commonalities and nuances in the needs of watershed professionals.

Watershed professionals want to lead

When asked to rank skills they wish to develop, respondents chose leadership most frequently as their highest priority. They seek to motivate partners and influence farmers, the public, and policy makers.

This is despite large majorities already expressing confidence with facilitating meetings, recruiting partners, and engaging decision makers. These findings suggest that leadership is a skill to develop continually throughout watershed professionals’ careers.

Communication is key

In describing the first skill they would seek in hiring a new staff person, respondents listed communication more than any other word. They seek support with a wide range of outreach strategies and audiences and, in particular, one-one-one communication with farmers and landowners.

Most respondents are confident engaging early adopter farmers and environmental organizations but less confident reaching absentee farmland owners, crops consultants, and underserved communities. Given 96% of respondents report spending significant time in their jobs doing communications, there is plenty of opportunity to support their projects with more resources to help them reach and influence target audiences.

Watershed professionals learn from their peers

To develop their professional capacity, respondents rely most on other watershed professionals (82%), followed by local partners (77%) and University Extension (56%). They overwhelming prefer in-person formats for learning and peer engagement, and most would travel up to 200 miles to attend a training.

Online networking and a mentorship program are each strongly favored by about one-quarter of respondents. These results reinforce the rationale to continue and expand services such as Extension-operated watershed academies, Leadership for Midwestern Watersheds, and the Fishers & Farmers Partnership.

Confidence varies by topic and background

Nearly all reported higher confidence in obtaining public funding vs private funding; engaging early adopters vs middle/late adopters; tracking environmental metrics vs social or economic metrics; and facilitating meetings vs influencing policy.

Those with more years of experience, farming background, and/or expertise in agronomy or engineering showed less discrepancy in confidence for some of these topics.

This all suggests that training and support to watershed professionals should be targeted according to their background and project needs.

Agriculture has a seat at the table

Respondents prioritized farmer-led groups, agribusiness / commodity groups, and crop consultants as partners they want to see more engaged in meeting water quality objectives. They ranked messages from influential farmers as an outreach strategy with great potential.

Given the cooperative manner in which watershed project leaders approach farmers, the agriculture industry stands to benefit by supporting these efforts to achieve statewide nutrient reduction goals.

Stable funding is needed

Watershed professionals did not choose their careers to get rich. Income ranked lowest—and water quality highest—among their primary motivations to do agricultural watershed conservation work.

But funding was the factor most cited to encourage them to stay in their current positions. In particular, stability and consistency of funding was most often cited.

Results also show that those with fewer than two years in their role are less satisfied with job benefits, and those with three to ten years are less satisfied with job security.

These results make a case that the best investment for water quality is the people who make it happen, and that investment should be for the long term.

These findings are enlightening, but not surprising. Communication, leadership, partnership… these are among the core competencies for watershed leadership articulated in other surveys and studies, as described in this prior Human Capital Blog Series post.

Detailed results of all survey questions including open-ended answers, cross tabulations, and results by state are available in the complete survey report.

Craig FicenecAbout Craig Ficenec

Craig Ficenec is Program Director at Sand County Foundation, where he leads projects to improve water quality and wildlife habitat on working lands, and directs the Leadership for Midwestern Watersheds annual meeting series. He worked previously with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as a program manager, easement coordinator, and agricultural engineer. Beyond the Midwest, Craig has been a watershed coordinator in the Monterey Bay region of California, evaluated watershed planning projects in Peru, and developed domestic water projects as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras.  


The Human Capital series features insights and stories to help tap the true human potential for achieving clean water in the Midwest.

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