River in Ohio

Regional Water Programs: The Benefits of Collaboration

Story by Joe Bonnell

As of May, 2023, I will have completed one year as Interim Director of the North Central Region Water Network (NCRWN). Also in May, the NCRWN Leadership Team will be meeting in Chicago to do some strategic planning around the future of the Network. I can’t think of a better time to reflect on twenty plus years of multi-state collaborative water programs and the invaluable role the North Central Region Water Network has and continues to play in facilitating regional collaboration.   

50 people posing for a picture at the 2016 NCRWN Conference
Joe Bonnell and other Network members at the 2016 North Central Region Water Network Conference in Nebraska.

My first exposure to multi-state collaboration began with the Great Lakes Regional Water Program in the early 2000’s. At the time, the federal Extension partner, the Cooperative State Research, Extension and Education Service (now the National Institute of Food and Agriculture) provided funding to the 1898 land-grant universities to create regional networks to foster and facilitate multi-state and multi-institutional collaboration on extension, research, and educational programming on water resource related issues. The Regional Water Program areas were based on the USEPA regions and, being at The Ohio State University at the time, I was appointed to be the OSU representative to the Great Lakes Regional Water Program (GLRWP), which corresponds to USEPA Region 5 and includes Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. I served as the Ohio representative to the GLRWP until 2014, when several regional water programs were merged into the 12-state North Central Region Water Network. I continued to represent OSU on the NCRWN Leadership Team until 2018, when I left Ohio State. In 2020, I joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension team as a natural resources educator and in May of 2022, with the departure of the longtime director Rebecca Power, I was asked to step into the role of Interim Director.

During the twenty or so years I’ve been involved in the GLRWP and NCRWN, I’ve witnessed many changes in state and federal funding for water-related programming. Formula funds (where every land-grant university gets an allotment of non-competitive federal funds) shrank and were transformed into competitive grant programs. Over time, the federal agencies realized it was easier to manage a few large grants than multiple small grants, so universities were encouraged or required to collaborate across state lines on increasingly larger multi-disciplinary projects. Fortunately, for the land-grant universities in the North Central Region, there was a long history and an existing structure for multi-state collaboration, thanks to the North Central Region Water Network. When faculty or extension educators and specialists wanted to put together a project team to apply for federal grants, they could consult with the NCRWN Leadership Team and in short order have a list of potential collaborators throughout the region. 

Oftentimes, however, new issues emerge before funding opportunities arise to address them. That’s why NCRWN has supported the creation of issue-focused teams to facilitate the identification of shared needs and opportunities for multi-state collaboration. Frequently, these issue teams have been successful at competing for grants and some have evolved into stand-alone regional networks, supporting regional extension, research, and education programs in a variety of issue areas, including soil health (Soil Health Nexus), climate change (North Central Climate Collaborative), and watershed management (The Confluence for Watershed Leaders) to name a few. 

During my tenure at OSU and now at UW-Madison, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many projects initiated and supported by the regional networks. Reflecting on what I gained from those projects, what stands out for me are the many personal and professional relationships I developed as a result that have made my work life so much richer and exposed me to new ideas and perspectives. When I started my current position with UW-Madison in 2000, I already had a network of Extension colleagues and friends in Wisconsin through my involvement with the North Central Region Water Network and associated projects. 

After a year serving as the Interim Director of the North Central Region Water Network, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for the Network and the staff that support the Network teams and programs. Anne Marie Nardi, Marketing Program Manager, has been the backbone of the Network since the departure of Rebecca Power and she continues to provide valuable communications support to many of the teams and projects. Jenny Seifert, Watershed Outreach Specialist, is building a network for watershed leaders called The Confluence, and has been incredibly creative and resourceful at building new partnerships to support existing Network programs. 

I’m sure many of you who are reading this have your own stories to tell of growing your professional networks and expanding your understanding of water resource issues through involvement in NCRWN projects, webinars, teams, and initiatives. As we prepare for our strategic planning meeting in Chicago, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences, what you appreciate about the Network, and what we can do to better serve you. Please send me your stories and ideas at joe.bonnell@wisc.edu.

Joe Bonnell, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension

Headshot of Joe Bonnell

Joe Bonnell has been involved in watershed and natural resource management for thirty years. He began his career as an environmental education volunteer with the US Peace Corps in Costa Rica. After the Peace Corps, Joe returned to his home state of Ohio to begin a doctoral program in natural resources at The Ohio State University where he also began his career in extension as a graduate research associate in watershed management. After completing his doctoral program, he accepted a full-time position as the director of watershed programs for OSU Extension, where he developed the Ohio Watershed Academy and Ohio Watershed Network to support community-based watershed protection efforts around the state. During his tenure with OSU, Joe also developed programs to support environmental leadership and volunteer naturalists. He also participated in multi-state extension programs as the OSU representative to the North Central Region Water Network and the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia research and extension initiative. Through these multi-state initiatives, Joe had the opportunity to collaborate with extension colleagues from the University of Wisconsin and to develop an appreciation for water resource issues across the Midwest. In 2018 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to teach environmental conflict management and conduct research on collaborative watershed management in the Dominican Republic. In addition to his PhD in Natural Resources, Joe has a bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Miami University of Ohio and an MS in Environmental Science from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs from Indiana University.

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