Based at the University of Wisconsin, The North Central Region Water Network (NCRWN) received an Education and Public Service Award at the UCOWR/NIWR 2019 Annual Water Conference for their substantive work in bringing water resources researchers and practitioners together. Extension professionals and diversely specialized stakeholders from 12 north central states form a dynamic network to address the water issues within their geographical context. The states involved (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio) work together to connect academic research with managers, agriculturalists, and others who can apply the knowledge in Best Management Practices (BMPs). The NCRWN group is passionate about ensuring and improving water quality and accessibility, community resilience, and sustainable water practices in the U.S. region they share. Recently, UCOWR reached out to the Director of the NCRWN, Rebecca Power, to learn more.
Power has been at the University of Wisconsin since 2001. She came into the network with already considerable experience in research, extension, and community education through her past work for a private consulting firm for savanna, prairie and wetland restoration, followed by eight years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an ecologist and park ranger. Power says of herself, “I am an ecologist at heart. Human systems, watershed systems – how the elements of these systems work together has always fascinated me.” Interest in these intersecting systems logically led her to extension work in the university setting, where she has been instrumental in linking environmental and social sciences together to foster effective water resource management research and practice.
Power and her colleagues have developed a remarkably nimble network across the 12 state region, able to assimilate quickly to new situations and disseminate pertinent information and programming in response. The leadership team meets monthly to plan time/season relevant content. She explains, “We continually ask ourselves, ‘Are we meeting peoples’ needs NOW?’ That purpose is central.” NCRWN also invests in high quality communication, prioritizing funding for specialized staff and technology to “elevate and amplify work that universities are doing all the time, making it available in usable format.” The agility of the network was apparent as quarantine measures were implemented across the U.S. in early spring. As Power wrote to the wide community on the March 31, 2020 NCRWN blog (Letter from the Network Director):
…it is important that those of us who have expertise in managing our water resources continue to do so. In some ways, it might be even more important. After all, water does not stop moving because of COVID-19. So, what can we do?
We can develop resources to address the unique challenges of COVID-19 and we can repackage existing resources to make them more accessible. Extension educators and specialists across our region are providing more online resources to address the unique challenges of COVID-19 and increase access to the wealth of information Extension has always provided.
The leadership and staff of the NCRWN quickly retooled programming to online formats, such as the Soil Health Nexus Digital Café Series and converting the Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit to an online event held April 28. NCRWN also provided thought provoking content concerning the impacts of COVID-19 through blogs on the website and open access, live webinar events.
The Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit, led by Lisa Merrifield, Network lead for the University of Illinois, highlighted the bridging of social and ecological sciences for which the North Central Region Water Network community strive. The summit included Extension and Sea Grant professionals, members of local and state government, and representatives from businesses, NGOs and community organizations. Attendees and speakers brought their expertise in community advocacy and support, social science research, and green infrastructure research and implementation together to explore case studies of successful and unsuccessful green infrastructure programs in the north central United States. The fundamental obligation of water resources researchers, planners, and managers to seek out the needs and concerns of community members before water management strategies are implemented in their communities, as well as during and after, emerged as a key theme. The summit agenda continues from case study comparisons to discussions of specific ways to involve communities in green infrastructure projects through processes such as listening and responding to community concerns, providing water education, and building job and career opportunities related to green infrastructure maintenance and development. The smaller scale, local situations scrutinized in the seminar highlight best practice elements easily applicable to larger scale water management issues, and contain lessons for broader urban and community planning, as well. The information and cases explored in the Equitable Green Infrastructure Summit are extraordinarily pertinent given recent and current events, and serve as examples for how we approach a wide range of ecological and social challenges.
The network has been reaching out to their wide audience, encouraging people to use the quarantine down time for professional development, with helpful links to their resources included. Providing accessible continuing education has long been a top priority for the network. A series of monthly webinars, The Current, highlights the best of water-related research and extension programming in the 12 state region and provides participants opportunity for discussion and networking. Power enthusiastically invites water professionals from any region to explore these and other resources offered by the network. In our conversation she noted the great extension work being done by their Soil Health Nexus team (see the Soil Health Toolbox) as well as the North Central Climate Collaborative (NC3), which works to push useful climate information out for extension educators, farmers, natural resource managers, and communities, and to support adoption of climate-smart practices that can improve efficient use of water while maintaining profitability.
In the midst of challenges we are all facing, Power offers best wishes and words of encouragement to water colleagues across academic disciplines and employment sectors. “Communication is key for university work. Get the great work out, where it is needed! Water systems remain essential. Remember how important you all are and consider what you can do, in your own way, to meet the moment we’re in.”
North Central Region Water Network homepage: https://northcentralwater.org/
NCRWN Blog page: https://northcentralwater.org/blog/