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9th July 2015

Tuesday, Jul 07, 2015 06:00 am
By: Joseph Ho

The Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Alberta Ecotrust Foundation are taking a new approach to watershed management.

The two groups have created what’s called a “social innovation lab,” which gathers stakeholders from various backgrounds for a common cause: to devise plans to maintain and improve surface and groundwater quality in the Red Deer River Watershed.

Stakeholders from government, non-profits, academia, industry and the citizenry belong to Project Blue Thumb: Action on Water Quality Issues.

“This is one of the most innovative approaches to watershed management,” said Jeff Hanger, the alliance’s executive director.

“Water quality and watershed management are two social issues. They relate to a much bigger system and only a social approach will actually assist in solving the problem.”

The Red Deer River Watershed Alliance, which includes Mountain View and Red Deer counties, is a multi-sector, non-profit organization that organizers say “promotes the good use and proper management of water within the Red Deer watershed.”

A watershed is a land mass from which water drains into a larger body, such as a lake, wetland or river. According to the alliance, the Red Deer River watershed takes up 49,000 square kilometres and includes parts of 19 municipal districts and counties and 50 urban centres.
Watersheds play many important roles such as: filtering runoff, flood mitigation and protecting biodiversity.

But they also face threats like pollution and invasive species, said Jean Bota, Division 2 councillor for Red Deer County and vice-chair of the alliance.

Bota participates in Project Blue Thumb and has attended workshops facilitated by Reos Partners, a firm that specializes in aiding the collaborative process.

“It reflects the voices of many people that are passionate about the water in our future. A lot of us feel water is going to be our next big issue,” Bota said.

They first focused on building trust and relationships with one another.

“Within the social lab, we talked about the four ways of talking and listening. We could be judging or debating. We could have empathy. Sometimes with people it stops at the judging,” she said.

“But if we can make it to empathy, we can get into some good discussion. The only way you’re going to build those bridges is through communication and trust and really sitting down and listening.”
Bota said the social lab is different from typical problem solving, which is a linear process — where people pinpoint the problem and jump to the solution.

In this case, stakeholders are constantly revising their ideas, ensuring they’re addressing the right issue, she continued.

Tracey Connatty, Planner II with Mountain View County is another member of the social lab. Traditionally, an issue like watershed management would be left to the municipality, to draft policies and impose them on landowners.

“The idea here is to come at it from a slightly different angle, to empower our elected officials but also the public to understand, we’re not forcing this on you. We’re trying to work with you to make this a healthier situation.”

They also break into separate groups to work on different projects.

Bota and Connatty are currently working on “A Watershed Environmental System of Municipal Excellence” (A.W.E.S.O.M.E.).

“What we’re trying to do is come up with a way to educate and inform our elected officials about wetlands and their importance and the reasons for conservation and improvement of wetlands,” Connatty said.

They are also doing a needs assessment for municipalities, documenting who’s making an effort to conserve, what they’re doing and who isn’t. Connatty said they are preparing a presentation for an annual convention that councillors attend.

The others include: BMP (Best Management Practises), a project that identifies best practices to ensure healthy wetlands and riparian areas; Bright Spots, to showcase people who are “already good stewards of water;” Super Network, creating a network of contacts; as well as a smartphone app that can be used to build data on water bodies.
It’s not just talk — all these projects are pilots and meant to be put into action quickly, Hanger said.

“When you’re having coffee at conferences, you network. When you network, you come up with these brilliant ideas. They last five minutes. You sit down and have another 45-minute PowerPoint presentation. The lab gives the opportunity to accelerate those solutions, to give them life. That’s what we do.”