University of Minnesota employees and partners discussing watershed management

Partnerships – Promise and Peril

As we work to address the range of water challenges across the North Central Region, partnerships have become both more expected and more challenging. They are mentioned in funding programs (e.g., the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program and NCR-SARE Partnership Grant Proposals), and the idea is even built into the name of this organization: the North Central Region Water Network.

Partnerships are key to addressing most if not all the pressing water issues that we face today. The word partnership also inspires both excitement and fear among decision-makers, administrators, researchers, landowners, and the many others who find themselves involved in one. They are exciting because they acknowledge that water does not stop at administrative or political boundaries; it flows across parcel, city, county, and state boundaries. By its nature, water requires partnerships to manage it successfully.

Partnerships can also cause heartburn. To be successful, they require investing time and funding, two resources that are often in short supply. Even with that commitment, there is no guarantee that the partnership will achieve its goals. When they do succeed, it is difficult to communicate the value of success and the role that these relationships played. While everyone involved may recognize that the relationships were a vital part of achieving our water goals, there are few widgets that can be measured when building them.

There are many examples of successful partnerships that address our water challenges (the Network being one), and we are always working to communicate the value of the very real resources that are expended developing key partnerships. Although this may not be surprising to the professional communicators among this group, storytelling is a very compelling tactic.

In this “story,” we use a range of indicators, from case studies detailing specific accomplishments of a particular partnership to high-level, quantitative metrics for the number and range of partnerships that we have developed. For example, our Stormwater Research Program’s recent highlights showcase the level of direct and leveraged funding and number of partners who support research and extension programs to address urban stormwater challenges. Tied with current project reports, we create a compelling narrative about the value of these relationships and a basis for continued financial support.

There are other ways to measure the success of these long-term investments. In developing their watershed management plan, Minnesota’s Scott County acknowledged that: “nonpoint source pollution control programs are more successful when they 1)a pply systems thinking; 2) are locally relevant; 3) engage local community members; 4) build strong relationships and enduring partnerships; and 5) stay focused, learn and adapt.”

To that end, the watershed management organization adopted policies to support each of these factors and worked with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Changing Landscapes to establish indicators to assess their level of success. For example, they are monitoring the number of requests landowners make for technical assistance as a measure of community awareness and interest in conservation practices. This single indicator does not tell the whole story, but it is a page to show progress.

Just as there is no single way to address the range of water issues we face as a community, state, and region, there is no easy way to show the value that partnerships provide. But the nature of the problem requires collaboration, and, though organizations like the North Central Region Water Network, we are finding ways to not only be successful, but successfully tell our story.

Joel Larson, University of Minnesota’s Water Resource Center

Headshot of Joel LarsonJoel Larson is the Associate Director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resource Center. Prior to joining the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center, Joel served as the Acting Director of USDA’s Southeast Regional Climate Hub, an analyst in the USDA Climate Change Program Office, and a social scientist with the Bureau of Land Management.

Joel has a B.A. in geography from Macalester College and a Master of Public Policy with an emphasis in natural resource policy and management from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School. Most importantly, Joel is supported by his wife Amelia, two sons, and their German Shepherd mix.

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