Local watershed organizations are influencing community dynamics—and the nature of environmental stewardship—in rural Pennsylvania, according to a research team at Pennsylvania State University.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania commissioned the study of rural watershed organizations, which drew on 27 in-depth interviews and questionnaires completed by 172 watershed organizations across the state.

“We got into this because we realized that community watershed organizations were really proliferating across the state.” said faculty member and researcher Frank Higdon. “There are literally hundreds of them, and we didn’t know that much about them.”

The study found that the role of watershed groups reached beyond the stream corridors. By working with conservation districts and forging new partnerships, the organizations not only support water resources, but community development as a whole.

In preparation for the study, researchers identified 580 community watershed organizations in rural Pennsylvania. They examined a subset of the organizations to better understand the characteristics, partnerships and the factors that help them to be effective in the local context.

Researchers found great diversity, but also a number of common threads.

Watershed groups in rural Pennsylvania vary widely in organizational age. Forty-four percent formed within the last 10 years, with more than 100 using grants from the state’s Growing Greener program. But nearly 25 percent formed before 1980.

Water quality concerns were a leading cause for the groups’ formation. But a number of concerns ranked fairly equal as secondary causes, including environmental education, habitat, recreation, land use planning, mining impacts, agricultural impacts and water supply.

Sportsmen were often among the organizations’ founders.

“Hunting and fishing groups, like Turkeys Unlimited and Trout Unlimited, were often the catalyst for getting these groups started. They got to talking among themselves and established a common interest,” said faculty member Kathryn Brasier, who also collaborated on the study.

Researchers also found that watershed organizations in rural Pennsylvania have gone mainstream, in what they describe as a notable “shift in strategic thinking.”

“These groups actively distance themselves from the conventional image of environmental activism,” said Richard Stedman, also a member of the facultly and research team. “They don’t want to be seen as radicals on the fringe of their communities.”

The relatively smaller size of rural communities makes it especially difficult to be productive through a confrontational or divisive approach.

Instead, groups build support through community education and hands-on projects that show positive results for their watersheds. Most raise community awareness through letter-writing campaigns, public meetings and media interviews. They focus on voluntary conservation practices and changing attitudes through environmental education with citizens and students.

They avoid politics, and spend relatively less time trying to influence regulations and policy. Only two mentioned using litigation.

In the words of one study participant, today’s watershed leaders are “active environmentalists,” rather than environmental activists.

This approach allows the organizations to maintain relationships with diverse groups and act as legitimate facilitators on public issues.

“But they aren’t shrinking violets,” Brasier said. Watershed organizations work closely with local, regional and state agencies to address problems. When they find regulatory violations, they report them.

“They are also vocal in talking to legislators, and they speak out at DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) meetings. They stand up for what they believe in, but in multiple ways—not just with bulldozers and briefs,” Brasier said.

Many local watershed organizations also affect their communities in ways that reach beyond environmental concerns. By working well with citizens and local governments, they create positive relationships and a network of people who want to be active in their communities. This network can be especially effective in rural settings, where one strong network can influence multiple aspects of the community.

“Community watershed organizations can have a variety of impacts within a community beyond water quality. They also contribute to leadership development and awareness of other issues like land use and how the community all fits together,” Brasier said.

In several cases, watershed organizations have spawned efforts to address public health and recreation issues.

“I’ve been struck by the number of people who, because of their interests and learning through the watershed organizations, have sought out workshops on their own and started teaching other people. One in particular started learning about mine drainage and ended up going to Australia to give a presentation,” Brasier said.

The study also showed that education was one of the “most visible and oft-cited” roles for community watershed groups. They offer a “holistic vision of environmental quality” that taps both the ecological and social significance of local waterways. Along with presentations for adult community groups, watershed organizations work closely with local schools on curriculum and field studies.

“Watershed organizations are providing teachers with resources, like watershed models, and giving students a very hands-on experience of their local resources that the schools couldn’t offer themselves,” Brasier said.

Government programs were by far the most common funding source for rural watershed organizations. Growing Greener topped the list. Sixty-four percent had applied for Growing Greener grants, and 52 percent had received them.

Most organizations weren’t familiar with private foundations and very few had applied to them for funding. Approximately 10 percent had received grants from five of the state’s best-known private funders. Only 5 percent had applied for funding from the Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants Program. Twenty-two percent hadn’t heard of it at all.

While the range of funding sources was narrow, there was breadth in the number and types of partnerships that rural watershed organizations develop. The majority of those surveyed had between three and nine organizational partnerships, mostly with state and local governments, colleges and other nonprofit organizations. Twenty percent reported 10 or more partnerships.

Together, they are building strong environmental coalitions at the county and regional levels. Watershed coordinators, employed by the county conservation districts, have nurtured these networks and introduced environmental groups to one another.

“They are learning and depending on each other, with a real recognition of common problems and common solutions and a more efficient use of resources,” Stedman said. “The more successful groups are the ones that are better partnered.”

Definitions of success vary widely among rural watershed organizations because their settings and goals are different. But several common features emerged among the more effective organizations—commonalties that had no direct connection to the size or structure of the organizations.

Researchers found that the more effective groups pay very close attention to organizational development. They develop broad-based advisory boards and use strategic planning to set goals and create community support.

They also form around a more comprehensive concern for their watershed, rather than a single triggering event. This prevents interest from fizzling out after the urgent problem is addressed.

The more effective groups also worked with a sponsoring organization for guidance on technical issues, funding resources and organizational development.

“You can’t overstate the importance of the DEP and the watershed coordinators in the conservation districts, and how they have helped these groups over a period of time to achieve success,” Higdon said.

Higdon said that one of most gratifying findings of the study is that civic life, rather than dying out, may be taking on a new form. In many cases, rural watershed organizations are leading the way.

“After so many face-to-face interviews with groups all across the state, in all the major watersheds, it was clear just how important water resources are to these communities and to their community identity,” Higdon said.

“These people have lived there for years, fished there and hunted there, and they’ve watched the watershed change. Watershed organizations were formed with help from the state and the local conservation districts, but they were generated locally. It’s the people themselves who are passionate about these resources and make the choice to spend time protecting them.”

Progress in Pennsylvania

Local watershed organizations in Pennsylvania play a vital role in community education as well as on-the-ground stream restoration. In recent years, local projects supported with funds from the Growing Greener program have:

  • Planted more than 188 miles of streamside buffers;
  • Restored 4,200 acres of wetlands;
  • Reclaimed more than 2,000 acres of abandoned mines;
  • Plugged 770 abandoned oil and gas wells; and
  • Supported the assessment of 153 watersheds.