Government, Governance, and Environmental Management

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The matter of distinguishing government from governance, identifying their separate yet complementary roles, say, in the realm of environmental management, and thinking seriously about the opportunities and challenges of an integrated or collaborative approach to confronting the issues of the day—none of this would have made any sense to a citizen of the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus.

The classical view did not recognize anything like civil society beyond the Empire itself, a unitary and homogeneous structure, encompassing both political and religious aspects. Outside its boundaries, there was simply barbarism.  It was only after centuries of struggle between Church and Empire, state and society, and the emergence of varying degrees of individualism, did the concept of a civil order and institutions (church, family, community, labor unions), antecedent to and independent of the state, come to pass or, more precisely, become more readily understood.

Without civil society, government and governance are essentially the same.  With civil society, government is simply part of the complex web of governance by which a society orders itself as well as the state.  Without a private realm, there can be no such thing as public-private partnerships, a concept increasingly in vogue in contemporary policy circles.

Governance encompasses more than just government.

Fast forwarding almost 1800 years later, the United States emerged as a pluralist society from its very beginnings, very distant from the reigning empire of its time, with minimalist government in the original 13 colonies.  In this environment arose a unique form of civil society and institutions which caught the eye and imagination of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and one of the most astute observers of American society to ever visit our shores.

In his 1835 masterpiece, Democracy in America, Tocqueville, reported on his observations of the American scene after an extensive tour of the new Republic.  He saw voluntary, intermediate associations, mediating between solitary individuals and government, as unique institutions which, even in the early 19th century, flourished among Americans.  It was a vibrant civil society which has recently been fraying at the edges as observed by scholars such as Harvard University’s Robert D. Putnam in his impressive book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival Of American Community.

Today the term “government” refers to the formal political institutions at the federal, state and local levels.  Certainly, government must be governed; but it is not the only thing that partakes of governance.  As one scholar has noted, no longer is “governance” viewed as a synonym for government. “Rather governance signifies ‘a change in the meaning of government, referring to a new process of governing; or a changed condition of ordered rule; or the new method by which society is governed.”

Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University, who was the first woman to receive the Nobel prize in economics, pioneered research on a plethora of collaborative approaches to resources management, around the world, in ways that mitigate the Tragedy of the Commons as described by Garrett Hardin.  She was able to demonstrate that user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins, in many countries and cultures, are able to establish norms of behavior, sophisticated rules for decision-making and even enforcement mechanisms.

The Economist magazine has found that an entire industry has sprung up to identify “new commons” such as the Internet.

Ostrom pointed out that governing the commons requires elaborate conventions over who can use resources and when, notes The Economist.  What you take out of a commons has to be proportional to what you put in. Usage has to be compatible with the commons’ underlying health.  Moreover, everyone has to have some say in the rules.  “And people usually pay more attention to monitoring abuses and to conflict resolution than to sanctions and punishment.”

Yet, scale matters, be it geographic, demographic or industrial. At some point, and America is way past it, there is a need to resort to government regulation at whatever level common sense, federalism and the principle of subsidiarity deem appropriate. That said, the bigger the challenge, the harder government must work to avoid becoming too big to fail, too much an end in itself, too removed from the people whom it serves and the resources it is supposed to manage and protect.

There are many widely differentiated reasons for the intense interest in governance issues, today, over and beyond the traditional role of government per se. A reinvigorated civil society is a boon for human freedom. Greater reliance on civil society, including the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, provides needed expertise and knowledge not always available in the governmental sector. Given the current financial meltdown of government at all levels, there are cost savings to be obtained. And there are benefits in terms of increased social capital to be had – less bowling alone as it were.

The efficacy of new governance models should appeal to the environmentalist or conservationist.  The earlier conservation movement emerged from the Progressive Era with an emphasis on scientific management and top-down control.  Moreover, modern environmentalism, at least since the 1970s, has focused, almost exclusively, on federalizing environmental management and regulation, with a helpful assist from delegated state programs serving as a kind of local contracting service.

However, many perceptive conservationist and environmentalist understand that many of our major, contemporary environmental problems require a broader portfolio of solutions which comprehend public-private partnerships and intergovernmental cooperation, in a kind of matrix approach, which cut across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors as well as government at all levels-federal, state and local.  It behooves anyone interested in addressing our current environmental predicament to call upon the intellectual, social, financial and political capital of civil society and the individuals and institutions which are a part of it.

Daniel Esty, former director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and top Connecticut official for environment and energy, and his then colleague, Marian R. Chertow, once called for the “next generation” of environmental policies “that are not confrontational but cooperative, less fragmented and more comprehensive, not inflexible but rather capable of being tailored to fit varying circumstances.

“We see a need for a ‘systems’ approach to a policy built on rigorous analysis, an interdisciplinary focus, and an appreciation that context matters,” argue Esty and Chertow.  After all, many of our environmental problems-pollution from automobiles, agricultural runoff and the loss of habitat to suburbanization – “cannot be solved by clamping down on the emissions of the few thousand largest factories in America.  Instead, we must address the effects of thousands of smaller firms and farms whose releases are individually small but cumulatively very large.  We must also try to affect the choices of 265 [sic] million Americans whose decisions about what to buy, where to live, how much to drive, what to throw away, and where to shop profoundly shape the quality of our environment.”

Pertinent to the matter of addressing governance, not just government, in the context of environmental management, Esty and Chertow note the importance of keeping pace with the important elements of “institutional realignment that are occurring in society.  Notably, the role of government is narrowing, the private sector’s responsibilities are broadening, and nongovernmental organizations, from think tanks to activist groups, are increasingly important policy actors.”

The development of the land trust movement in this country is one of the paramount examples of nongovernmental or civil society organizations in the conservation and environmental realms.  The 2005 National Land Trust Census of the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) documents the truly remarkable growth of land trusts over the previous five years. Total acres conserved by local, state and national trusts and conservancies doubled to 37 million acres.  This is an area sixteen and a half times the size of Yellowstone National Park, says LTA.

Despite the strong headwind of the Great Recession of 2008, the latest LTA Census for 2010 reveals that land trust protected another 10 million acres in the previous five years, totaling 47 million acres-an area the size of Washington state.  This represents a 27 percent jump in acreage since 2005.

Moreover, the importance of governance and governing to nongovernmental organizations, in terms of its external and internal operations, board of directors and stakeholders was made painfully clear by the past storms surrounding The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization, after an expose’ by The Washington Post and hearings by the Senate Finance Committee.  In effect, the distinction between a for-profit and a not-for-profit organization disappears when you reach a certain critical mass.  Thus, issues of transparency and governance are paramount, even for nongovernmental organizations, given their prominent role in social and environmental policy and their status as tax exempt entities.

An illustrative case of the functional environmental benefits of an expanded, civil society approach to environmental problem-solving is the pressing need to expand the focus of water management from a narrow concern on isolated point-source discharges of pollution, the traditional pipes in the water, to the entire watershed at landscape scale.  Whether it is the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, Saginaw Bay or the western basin of Lake Erie, contemporary water quality issues are driven by practices on the land yielding polluted runoff from unregulated farm fields and imperfectly regulated stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces in urban and suburban areas.  These are systemic challenges implicating private parties and governments at all levels.

Indeed, governance may be the most challenging aspect of watershed management which, 42 years after passage of America’s Clean Water Act, is still a stumbling block in our quest “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

The challenge of governance is, basically, that of “managing ourselves” to adopt a phrase from Richard N. L. Andrews’s history of American environmental policy.

As Professor Andrews explains, “environmental issues are issues not just of science or economics but of governance.” “They concern problems that are not being solved by science and technology alone, nor by the ‘invisible hand’ of markets or individual actions, and for which advocates therefore seek collective solutions through government action.”

Yet, Andrews is most certainly correct when he writes, “Government policies themselves, moreover, are often causes of environmental problems as well as solutions to them.”  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Issues of governance, therefore, involve the governors as much as the governed.  To appreciate this last point consider the negative environmental impacts caused by government subsidies for water development, agriculture, below-cost grazing, below-cost timber sales, fisheries exploitation, ethanol and sugar tariffs, the latter having contributed as much to the diminishment of the Everglades as any other federal policy.

With a view toward comprehending the problem, as well as possible solutions to degradation at the watershed scale, consider a case study from the Great Lakes region in the context of a major metropolitan area on Lake Michigan. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) provides a useful model of utility leadership in forging a collaborative undertaking in watershed governance to address urban wet weather issues under the Clean Water Act. It is an instructive if paradoxical case. MMSD’s long-term success may depend on an entirely new nongovernmental organization, a public-private, not-for-profit partnership, a kind of voluntary association, with a life of its own.

MMSD provides wastewater and flood management services to 1.1 million customers in 28 communities, serving 411 square miles on the shore of Lake Michigan.

As with many older communities in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, MMSD had to respond to urban wet weather issues, especially Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), releases of massive amounts of wastewater during big-storm events resulting from an infrastructure design in which sewage and stormwater were conveyed in the same pipes to treatment plants.  When the pipes overflow, and to avoid disrupting biological treatment processes, the wastewater is allowed to overflow into receiving waters.

CSOs make up approximately 5 percent of MMSD’s service area, but bring with them tremendous financial and environmental consequences.  As a result of federal policy and regulation, MMSD invested $3 billion in “grey” infrastructure through the 1990s as part of its Water Pollution Abatement Program (WPAP), for structural work, i.e., large underground deep tunnels to hold overflows for treatment after the storm event subsided. It is currently finishing another $1 billion investment, thus bringing the total investment to $4 billion with a “b.”

Before WPAP came on line, MMSD experienced between 50 and 60 overflows per year with an annual average volume of 8 billion to 9 billion gallons of overflow.  Presently, it has only two overflows per year with an annual average of one billion gallons of overflow.

Unfortunately, within the six (6) sub-watersheds in MMSD’s service area and tributary to Lake Michigan, 37 percent of the annual bacteria load comes from rural nonpoint sources and 56 percent from urban stormwater.  Beach closings still occur after significant storm events. These challenges now eclipse CSOs as the main obstacle to further gains in water quality

In addition, University of Wisconsin researchers are predicting that extreme precipitation events will become 10 to 40 percent stronger in southern Wisconsin due to climate change and variability. CSO events, with resultant overflows into Lake Michigan, will rise by 50 to 120 percent by the end of this century.

While MMSD already used the Clean Water Act’s Section 208 planning process, it decided to pursue a collaborative approach to watershed management, focusing on flow reduction coming from stormwater and nonpoint sources which are either insufficiently regulated or not regulated at all.  As part of this effort, it invested heavily in regional water quality monitoring on a watershed basis.

MMSD is also developing watershed restoration for its six (6) sub-watersheds.  Ultimately, it hopes to incorporate at least some of these areas into a watershed-based permit to control all point and nonpoint sources across numerous municipal jurisdictions.

MMSD is already promoting watershed-based, distributed “green” infrastructure and Low Impact Development (LID) approaches such as disconnection of downspouts, use of rain barrels, vegetated swales, cisterns, installation of green roofs and urban reforestation to supplement grey infrastructure by reducing flow through infiltration, retention and evapotranspiration at the site level.  Subject to design, scaling and management, MMSD has documented capital cost savings from pursuing this approach.

MMSD is working with the Conservation Fund, the second largest land conservancy in the nation, to buy and restore floodplains to manage flooding and reduce stormwater flows.  This “Greenseams” program has already acquired approximately 2,700 acres since 2002 and has spent $21.1 million from its capital improvements budget and has also received some grants for the program.

Kevin Shafer, the Executive Director of MMSD, came to realize that suburban communities, business, agriculture, environmental groups, universities and a range of stakeholders will have to be brought into the watershed process if the goal of transforming the landscape, in both its urban and rural aspects, is to be attained. This will be accomplished by means of “green” infrastructure for stormwater control and BMPs for agricultural nonpoint sources.  Shafer eventually came upon Chicago Wilderness as a prototype of the kind of collaborative model MMSD needed to engage the larger community, including numerous local jurisdictions with a particular interest in stormwater compliance.

Chicago Wilderness is an alliance of organizations interested in protecting and restoring biodiversity in urban, suburban and rural areas in and around the Chicago metropolitan region. With its more than 240 members, this organization seeks to raise awareness and knowledge about nature, healthy ecosystems and biological resources, especially prairie landscapes; increase public participation and stewardship; build alliances among diverse constituencies; and facilitate applied natural and social science research, BMPs and the sharing of information. It also seeks to generate broad-based public and private support and attract resources to achieve its goals.

Shafer and other leaders in Milwaukee’s water community were was able to initiate an extended process of consultation and deliberation among interested stakeholders with funding from a local foundation and facilitated by a local university professor.
MMSD, working with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) had already revised its Section 208 plan and resolved on a regional partnership, the Milwaukee Regional Partnership Initiative, to develop restoration plans for each of its six (6) sub-watersheds. As originally conceived, it included an Executive Steering Council with various policy, legal, technical and scientific advisory committees with direct oversight of plan development. The Council was fairly representative of the community if limited in number.

In time, something like a consensus was realized on a new entity akin to Chicago Wilderness: the Southeast Wisconsin Watershed Trust (SWWT), popularly known as the “Sweet Water Trust.” Formed in 2008, it sought to focus on “integrated water resources management” across political boundaries and engage in “second level planning” to fulfill the regional plan previously developed and in conjunction with the individual “Watershed Restoration Plans” to be undertaken in each sub-watershed. To that end, it has established “Watershed Action Teams” under the direction of an expanded Executive Steering Council. One of its key goals is to “Identify/support land use practices and designs that enhance/improve water resources and promote and restore ecological benefits.”  It also aims to “Forge and strengthen relationships to leverage funding and recommend policies to assist in the implementation of projects to produce lasting water resource benefits and cost savings throughout the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds and nearshore Lake Michigan.”

Among its primary purposes is “[t]o build partnerships and enhance collaborative decision-making and joint project implementation engaging government, business, the building industry, agriculture, environmental, and other stakeholder organizations to obtain broad agreement and recommend where to invest funds to get the greatest benefit.”

SWWT’s membership includes individuals, units of government, nongovernmental organizations and the business community.  It has hired staff and received a $1.9 million grant from the Joyce Foundation.  It also convenes a well-attended annual conference.

Reflecting on the Milwaukee MMSD case, several points need emphasis. First, regulation, federal regulation, is very much a part of the picture. CSO regulation is the driver.  Government, as it were, is very much involved, in the case of MMSD, steering and rowing. The $4 billion MMSD has spent or will spend on major capital projects resulted from a very strong enforcement posture from EPA. Moreover, given future weather patterns and evolving stormwater regulations, the regulatory pressure will be maintained over time.

Second, economic efficiency is just part of the motivation in developing this new partnership.  It is also based on the functionality of the collaborative enterprise.  The problem is a systemic one throughout MMSD’s service area and watershed, including six sub-watersheds, both in and outside its service area.  It must be dealt with, not just in the city of Milwaukee, but the suburbs and rural areas, too. Thus, the collaboration, especially with other municipal jurisdictions is critical to ultimate success.  And, of course, private property owners-residential homeowners, businesses and farmers must be drawn into the process.

Third, cost savings are just some of the multiple environmental and social benefits to be generated by this new approach at the watershed or landscape scale.  A greener, more verdant urban environment results from the emphasis on green infrastructure, LID, and agricultural BMPs.  More green roofs, tree plantings, vegetated swales and the like will mitigate urban heat island effects, sequester carbon and, in some cases provide habitat, not to mention aesthetic benefits and community support.  The same advantages obtain by pursuing best management practices across the agricultural landscape, too-buffer strips, constructed wetlands, reforestation of riparian corridors and other non-structural approaches.

Fourth, it just doesn’t happen. Leadership, imagination and perseverance are essential.  Kevin Shafer is a fine engineer who came to realize the social dimension of the watershed challenges MMSD faces.  He brought a sociologist’s, or maybe a politician’s, sensibility to the problem in recognizing the potential for a voluntary association, similar to Chicago Wilderness, to serve as a convener, a forum and a catalyst for change.  Shafer’s leadership was the critical element in the formation of SWWT.

Fifth, a key institution needs to anchor, convene, provide start-up capital, sustain, drive or otherwise instigate these new collaborative partnerships.  Again, that was the role MMSD played with the leadership and insight of Kevin Shafer.  In other settings the “anchor” might be a community foundation, a land trust, a state agency, a business corporation, an NGO, or a philanthropist.

Sixth, and often forgotten, is the fact that robust data and monitoring must be available in order to target major problems, direct precious resources where needed, evaluate outcomes and ensure social and political legitimacy.  Data and monitoring are often the first thing that gets cut in difficult budget times. It should be the last if public-private partnerships at watershed scale are to be successful.  There is no other way to manage numerous and disparate actions across a wide geographic area, carried out by diverse and multiple parties or entities, in such a manner as to provide confidence to citizens, funders, regulators and elected officials. Political legitimacy is enhanced which is indispensable in the competition for shrinking public and private resources. It offers the best way to ensure accountability at every stage of project implementation be it at the micro or macro scale.

Nothing in the Milwaukee example reflects “either-or” thinking. It is “both-and.” Both government and the private and not-for-profit sectors are engaged.  Both regulation and volunteerism are required. Both green and structural approaches are deployed to solve the problem.

One authority, my friend Dan Fiorino, formerly of EPA and now at American University, has described this novel, mixed approach as “social-political governance,” a pattern of governance “in which the lines between public and private are blurred as the boundaries between them become fluid and permeable.  Government acts less on other actors in a hierarchical relationship as it does with them in a more collaborative and communicative way; governing consists less of the state exerting control over others in society and more of an interaction among them.  There is more shared responsibility and trust.”  Moreover, this new, mode of governance actually recasts environmental regulation “as a more effective learning system.”

As I have also noted on this site before, Lynn Scarlett has termed this approach “network governance.”

So we have arrived at the point where government and civil society must learn from each other, necessitating a kind of humility often lacking on both sides of the divide.  We are coming to appreciate the utility, not just the virtue, in the complementarity of government and governance, broadly defined, and discovering an effective, new mode of environmental management.

In sum, public-private partnerships are essentially a platform for the sharing of knowledge and mutual enlightenment.  Each party to the relationship brings with it unique information, experience and perspectives to the benefit of both.