You’re Not From Around This Watershed, Are You?

[imgbelt img=NeilACollinsondeck.jpg]Tim Collins, carrying on a family tradition, suggests that for long-term development, we must organize around our relationships to water and to the other communities, urban and rural, along those same waterways.


A message from the Rural Assembly

It is time to move beyond watershed planning bodies and associations, which do good works but have limited clout and authority. We need legally to revamp relationships among states and communities that share watersheds in order to improve governance. Even without changes in federal law, states could, at a minimum, rearrange the boundaries and powers of localities to focus on their relationships within watersheds.

Watershed government would offer a more geographically natural way for communities to focus on sustainability, so that they both take into account the larger context of downstream consequences of their everyday activities and work at improving upstream and cross-stream interconnections between rural and urban areas. Watershed governments would follow the natural path of water. Rather than delimiting themselves with survey lines – like those used to lay out square townships in the Midwest — rural communities at the head of a waterway would become municipalities based on topography.

Watershed municipalities would be members of state-chartered watershed assemblies: legally constituted, regional, quasi-municipal bodies with professional administrators and staff responsible to elected representatives from the various sub-watershed (community-based) municipalities up and downstream. State watershed assemblies would be granted powers by legislatures to govern watersheds with respect for the environment, including raising revenue to share among municipalities up and downstream.  State legislative lines could be drawn to include consideration for watersheds, along with proportional representation in the legislature.

[imgcontainer left] [img:NeilACollinsondeck.jpg] My grandfather, on board.

How could watershed projects benefit both rural and urban areas? Such cooperation would help to reclaim wetlands, aid in flood and pollution control, limit floodplain development, protecting endangered species and better control invasive species. Watershed municipalities could also build recreational facilities and improve locks and dams for transportation. Where needed, they could assist fish migration and set up conditions to reintroduce commercial fishing, enhancing ecotourism opportunities. If ecological conditions were favorable, they could also raise revenue through hydroelectric power generation.

Granted, watershed government would be a tough political sell, but drawing new watershed boundaries would be easy in terms of geography. (The political complications of redrawing municipal lines along watersheds could become nightmarish for areas located in more than one significant river valley.)

Environmental educators often discuss watershed awareness not only for local sustainability but as a recognition of our connections with one another and the environment. This is important, as Iowa has found out. After several historic floods in the past 15 years or so, Iowa begun to emphasize the rural and urban linkages along watersheds. A recent edition of Iowa Public Television’s The Iowa Journal examines the impacts of the floods and efforts to develop regional flood control that include conservation practices to retain water on farmlands in times of heavy rains. These practices reduce soil erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, while protecting people and property in cities and towns downstream.

The lessons from Iowa and the USGS watershed model are that larger environmental problems have local and regional roots. Just as Grandfather Collins recognized the larger implications of Great Lakes harbors development for communities, his grandson recognizes the larger implications of watersheds in connecting rural and urban communities to create a more sustainable society. (I hope I’m doing him proud.) 

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.



A message from the Rural Assembly