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Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy

Reservoir Health Focus of Wakefield Public Forum

Concerns that sedimentation is filling the reservoir and blue-green algae blooms that impair water quality are recurring prompted high turnout at a public forum in Wakefield, Kan. on February 9.  Organized by the KSU’s Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy (ICDD) and the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education (KACEE), the public event was a timely opportunity to employ a conversation method - the National Issues Forums (NIF) choice-work protocol – often used by ICDD in communities searching for common ground on complex issues.  The organizations hosting the event - Milford Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) and Clay County Conservation District - were searching for an optimal means of conducting public inquiry into problems facing Milford and other Kansas reservoirs now at their half-life of expected longevity.

KACEE had selected Milford Reservoir as part of a larger national project with the Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio to develop NIF discussion frameworks for multiple water issues.  Melissa Arthur, KACEE Director of Operations, and Jeff Severin, Director of the University of Kansas Center for Sustainability, have met frequently with Donna Schenck-Hamlin, ICDD Project Coordinator, to formulate and test a values-based framing of approaches, actions and drawbacks for reservoir management. For over a year, hypothetical actions for dealing with sedimentation were formulated and tested with different groups before being presented to the Milford community of stakeholders.

Participants at the forum examined 16 actions, organized into four “approach” clusters; Collective Responsibility, Respecting Nature, Human Ingenuity, and Self-Determination.  Each action was presented with a trade-off, meaning that if the chosen action were carried out, something else considered important could be at risk, or an undesirable outcome could occur that might lessen support for the action.  As participants discussed actions and trade-offs, they were prompted by facilitators to explore the values, assumptions and the tensions that often exist between multiple, competing priorities. 

The forum included dinner and was free and open to the public. Turnout exceeded registration, with approximately 100 participating.  ICDD volunteer facilitators from Manhattan and Salina moderated the conversation at 11 tables. Participants included a rare mix of age and interest groups, including a sixth-grade class, AmeriCorps volunteers from Clay County, lakeside business and property owners, farmers, government agencies and non-profit organizations.   

The purpose of the NIF process for discussion is not to arrive at consensus, but to offer community participants the opportunity to explore together the reasons, assumptions and values behind their responses to proposed actions.  Testimony from participants showed high satisfaction with the facilitated discussion, and many technical questions were asked that people wanted to pursue, some even using Google at their tables to research while the discussion was underway.  Key concerns about reservoir management were centered on regulation, costs of solutions, the complexity of water issues and the need for cooperation upstream and downstream. At the summary table, groups were asked if they had preferences for one or more of the clustered approaches.   In answer, some groups named two approaches, but many more answered that actions from all four approaches should be considered.  It appeared that group polarization was avoided by a more even-handed inquiry into solutions.

The NIF process has been shown by Kettering Foundation research to provide public space for individuals to re-visit the ways they consider an issue.  The post-event survey supports this finding, with 41 percent agreeing with the statement “Based on this conversation, I may change how I think about managing water resources” and 20 percent strongly agreeing, compared with 31 percent neither agreeing nor disagreeing and only 8 percent disagreeing.  This suggests an encouraging openness by Milford area stakeholders to re-consider options for action, which bodes well for sustained engagement in a water issue with an urgent, yet protracted timeline.