Partnership Conference in Memphis Points Important Direction for Corps of Engineers, Collaborators
Years ago, everyone in the river planning, design, and restoration business was talking “partnership.” A lot got done, but there was an awful lot of talk. Now, after a decade of collaborative work, large NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, and The Conservation Fund and federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers are continuing to reflect on how their decade of partnership has worked, who else might be involved, and what are some lessons learned.
The aforementioned organizations held an extremely interesting conference in Memphis the week before Thanksgiving. The Fifth National Partnership Conference opened with keynote speakers who provided broad overviews and a sense of urgency around water issues. There were a number of outstanding talks—too many to go into in detail—but a highlight was Gerald Galloway’s address which posed “An Opportunity and Five Challenges” to the crowd of water program managers and scientists. I’ll return to Galloway’s points in a later blog post; suffice it to say that the first day’s talks went well beyond the “how” of ecological restoration and sustainable water management and provided compelling cases for “why” these issues are so central to our long term future.
The second day featured technical sessions on collaboration and the mechanisms by which it could happen and then working groups considered several key areas for future work in enriching partnership development. The “report out” session from these groups, which closed the conference, provided a series of strong “take away” messages. These ideas, which included ongoing challenges for consideration as well as foundations of lessons learned from the first decade of collaborative practice, are important summations of collective insight on six important themes:
- Sustainability—Institutional sustainability is as important, perhaps, as sustainability of the systems we work with. For us to be able to respond to coming water resource challenges, we will need to educate our organizations, and be prepared to address shifts in systems such as climate and the global economy that may be only imperfectly predicted.
- Integrating stakeholders—Working with diverse partners is essentiual to share knowledge and the learning that comes from successful projects. But this integration takes time, and strong efforts to learn the “cultures” of these groups. Science—Science is an important foundation for water resource management work, and integrating the perspectives of diverse fields of scientific inquiry remains a challenge. Even as scientists might learn better communication practices to better convey their insights, they also need to expand their reach to include social scientists, especially, perhaps, economists.
- Floodplain management—This area has been much in the news with the severe 2011 floods on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Undoubtedly some policy changes are coming, but figuring out how better to integrate floodplain management throughout the watershed is a critically important idea.
- Coastal management—It’s important for river resource people to remember that “the coast is downstream.” As is the case with many partnership or collaborative efforts, bringing in coastal ecosystem folks requires patience, listening, and learning.
- Communication—It seems self evident but you can’t overestimate the importance of communication in building strong collaborations. In many ways, the challenges of communication represent the challenges of collaboration in microcosm: “integration” should be the goal, with all contributing their strengths, rather than just adding up or aggregating what everyone already does.
Much more could, and should, be said about the field excursion out on the Mississippi to examine some project sites, as well as key insights from other speakers and from the 40+ posters that were exhibited. As more information becomes available, I’ll try to pass it along.