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Dispatch: Leuphana University Conference on the EU Water Framework Directive

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 04 September 2010

It is the day after the Leuphana conference on the EU Watershed Framework Directive. I'm relaxing and reflecting for a day in the beautiful town of Luneberg, Germany before the long trek back to Davis. Thanks to Jens Newig, Mariele Evers, Oliver Fritsch, and Leonie Lange for organizing the proceedings. The goal was a cross-country comparison of public participation and watershed management in the context of the WFD. I was invited to present some insights from watershed management in California and the US, as well as discuss the potential for the ecology of games framework to be applied across the EU member states at the watershed level.

The WFD can basically be described as the 1972 Clean Water Act on steroids. The three major institutional changes of the WFD are the requirement for river basin/watershed management plans, establishment of ecologically-based water quality standards for example using indices of biological integrity, and stronger efforts at public participation. The major question is whether or not the new institutions of the WFD have improved water goverance, stakeholder cooperation, and ultimately watershed health.

The primary activity of the conference was academics from various countries delivering "country reports" assessing the status and effectiveness of WFD public participation. The most surprising thing to me was the nearly universal view that the WFD has not adequately met the goals of public participation (of course we debated a lot about those goals...). Most of the participants saw major needs for improvement. The one possible exception was the country of Spain, especially Catalonia. The Spanish scholars reported fairly high levels of public participation, along with good faith and intensive efforts on the part of public agencies. Most of the other countries viewed the public participation as fairly symbolic without much influence on actual decisions, with participation being dominated by organized interest groups rather than providing a venue for more general citizen participation. One of the debates was whether or not having a diverse set of NGOs as participants is enough, or whether democratic norms and policy effectiveness really require a strong presence by citizens-at-large. In my opinion, organized NGOs are pretty good at doing the job of representing different sectors of citizen interests as long as the set of NGOs is fairly diverse and not dominated by a particular set of intersts. A fair number of the countries reported that public participation was dominated by agricultural interests, especially in countries with high levels of agricultural activity and associated non-point source pollution issues.

The big disappointment of the conference was our inability to agree on a common theoretical framework to explain the levels and effects of public participation across countries. I wanted to try to come up with such a framework to support the development of a EU-wide research project on watershed governance. I suppose I was overly optimistic about this possibility. The reality is there were too many theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches at this conference to agree on a common framework or set of research questions at this stage. For example, should such a research project focus narrowly on public participation, or should it take on the broader topic of watershed governance and how public participation fits into the overall set of decisions and policy networks? I think we should be looking at governance more broadly, because public participation is really only a small part and the question is whether the minor element of public participation has some influence on decisions, outputs, and outcomes.

So what is next? I can say I learned a lot and that is good. There was some general will among people to write a grant proposal to continue to the discussion and focus next on presenting and defending different theoretical frameworks for explaining variance across countries in terms of WFD implementation. Time will tell if there is enough energy in the group to overcome the difficult barriers to interdisciplinary and international scientific collaboration.