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A Framework for Watershed Organizations

Ralph Pentland   |   October 2020

Ontario Stream_Richard.jpg

Watershed organizations are an important part of good water governance. While they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes (councils, boards, alliances, etc.), watershed organizations can broadly be defined as organizations that bring together multiple parties to work towards better water outcomes at the watershed level. They are generally considered ideal vehicles for promoting responsible local decision making because watersheds most clearly illuminate interactions between cumulative human activities and the hydrologic cycle.

Yet it is important to note that watershed organizations are not a panacea for solving all of our water woes. That is because, at their core, all major water issues are also cultural issues that are rooted in the way broader societal and economic decisions are made. Watershed organizations cannot solve those core issues directly. But they can do two important things: (1) help basin residents adapt to them and (2) contribute to a better-informed electorate over the very long term. 

It is also true that the majority of choices and actions that sustain the ecological integrity and support wise use of aquatic ecosystems are made at a community level. Watershed organizations have an important role to play here influencing – and sometimes making – these decisions. In fulfilling this role, watershed organizations should be guided by informed science, robust policy, and providing service that results in measurably beneficial outcomes. This science-policy-service framework is explored below from three different angles: winning conditions, internal best practices, and building local capacity.

Winning Conditions

External factors – or ‘winning conditions’ – can enable the growth of watershed organizations and improve their effectiveness. Often these winning conditions depend to a large extent on the support of more senior levels of government.


Science. Watershed organizations need knowledge that is transparent, readily available, and understandable by local water managers. That knowledge capacity need not necessarily reside within more senior governments, but those governments do have a responsibility to ensure that enough of the right kinds of monitoring and research are carried out.

Policy. Local entities need senior orders of government to facilitate interjurisdictional arrangements where required. Such interjurisdictional arrangements often lead to a nested watershed approach. If done well, an interjurisdictional nested watershed approach can contribute greatly to an improved science and policy context for local watershed organizations. Watershed organizations also need well designed rules and regulations to ensure consistency across jurisdictions.

Service. Securing sustainable funding is a basic need – and common challenge – of all watershed organizations. Generally speaking, the authority to raise funds locally (e.g. through a per capita levy on municipalities) has been found to be more sustainable than senior government funding. Watershed organizations also need sufficient autonomy and authority to actually make responsible decisions. In some of the more progressive examples, provinces have actually delegated substantial regulatory powers to these organizations.

Internal Best Practices

Although every watershed organization is different, there are broadly applicable best practices that can help guide internal processes. These can also be viewed within a science-policy-service framework.

Science. Effective watershed organizations need the capacity to both understand and utilize outside science, and in some circumstances to generate key knowledge on their own. They also need analytical systems or models capable of revealing the full range of impacts that would be produced by particular uses and developments in the watershed.

Policy. Ideally, watershed organizations should have the ability to develop watershed plans sufficiently comprehensive to take into account all uses of the water system and other activities that affect water quantity and quality. Such plans provide a reference for responsible decision making. In many cases, they will also need guidelines and objectives, along with criteria for objectively assessing alternatives.

Service. Watershed organizations need provisions and practices that ensure effective public engagement in the process of determining goals and objectives, and in making decisions within the scope of their authority. They must also ensure the cooperation and participation of all relevant regulatory authorities.

Building Local Capacity

Watershed organizations can and often do play an important role in building capacity and creating winning conditions for good water management at the local level.

Science. Citizens increasingly want to be involved in responsible decisions and are developing a thirst for knowledge that will assist them in doing so. Community-based monitoring and Indigenous knowledge are playing increasingly important roles in water management, and many watershed organizations are now rising to that opportunity by encouraging the development and application of different types of knowledge.

Policy. Some watershed organizations are now playing very important roles in assisting communities to develop effective water-related plans and local bylaws. In many cases, provincial laws and policies need to be interpreted and translated into forms that can be used more readily by local entities in their decision making.

Service. Watershed organization leadership need not necessarily be exercised by control; often, watershed organizations exercise leadership through strategic influence and example. This may consist simply of synthesizing, interpreting, and disseminating useful and appropriate information. It may consist of enhancing local capacity to make complex choices and in providing open processes for building consensus. It may mean empowering communities with projects which achieve measurable results. Or it may consist of providing measures of sustainability with which local entities can gauge the benefits of their own actions. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing and growing an effective watershed organization. But an intentional focus on the core principles of science, policy, and service can help any watershed organization ensure its structure and activities are best suited to the socio-hydrological system it is serving.

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