Ottawa River Coalition
Written by Joe Bonnell, Program Director for Watershed Management, The Ohio State University – School of Environment and Natural Resources.
On October 7, 2015 I attended a meeting of the Ottawa River Coalition (ORC). A few weeks prior, I had requested a meeting with Beth Seibert, watershed coordinator with the ORC to gather information for this profile. The ORC had a reputation for putting together a diverse coalition of interests around watershed protection and a reputation for getting results and I wanted to learn more about the role leadership played in their success. Beth indicated that she would be happy to talk with me, but that she would also like to invite members of the Coalition to join us so they could share their perspectives on leadership and the ORC. Quite honestly, I expected a few individuals to respond to Beth’s invitation. Instead, what I encountered when we arrived at the Allen Soil and Water Conservation District office on October 7 was a large meeting room full of Coalition board members anxious to sing the praises of the Coalition and Beth Seibert, their long-time coordinator. For more than an hour, I asked the questions and one-by-one the Coalition partner representatives got up and shared their thoughts at the microphone.
A drainage channel naturalization project in Herrod, Ohio led by the Ottawa River Coalition and designed by ODNR.
The drainage channel, located on a high school property, was severely eroded. It is now densely vegetated and has access to floodplain.The drainage channel and a wide buffer along the channel are now protected with a conservation easement. An example of the type of NPS project the Ottawa River Coalition has implemented throughout the watershed.
About the Ottawa River Watershed
The Ottawa River is a sub-watershed of the Maumee River, which has been identified as a major contributor of sediment and nutrients to the Western Lake Erie Basin. The Ottawa River watershed drains 372 square miles within Allen, Hardin, Putnam and Auglaize counties in NW Ohio. Most of the land in the watershed is agricultural, but there are significant urbanized areas, most notably the City of Lima (pop. >38,000). The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency last conducted a thorough assessment of water quality in the watershed in 2010 to assign Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for various pollutants. At that time, 72% (36 miles) of the mainstem of the river was in full attainment of aquatic life use goals, 24% was listed as partially attaining and 4% was listed as non-attaining. Causes of impairment included nutrients, sedimentation, habitat alterations, and bacteria (E. coli.). Sources included flow alteration, crop production with subsurface drainage, storm sewers and municipal point source discharges including industry and wastewater treatment plants.
In the following narrative, I’ve tried to summarize and synthesize the lessons Beth and the Ottawa River Coalition partners shared with me that day about their experiences leading a collaborative watershed initiative.
Lesson #1: An effective watershed coordinator is essential
Beth Seibert may well be the longest serving watershed coordinator in the state of Ohio. Certainly her long tenure with the same watershed group is unprecedented and it was clear from the Coalition partners’ comments that Beth has been a central figure in the success of the organization.
In their own words
"The Ottawa River Coalition is Beth Seibert…Without a Beth Seibert, you wouldn’t have an Ottawa River Coalition. She’s been very instrumental in reaching out to all of us and encouraging us to participate…[She] has the community’s best interest in mind…Getting the members…making them aware that they have a lot to contribute as well." - County Engineer
"Beth has been a good vehicle to bring urban folks and the ag community and all the stakeholders together." - Building Inspector, City of Lima
"What makes [Beth] successful? She is not afraid to ask. If she wants something, she will ask. I think that may be 90% of what makes the organization successful that others don’t have in that leadership position…She makes the case for why we should participate financially." - Sanitary Engineer, City of Lima
"Not only is Beth very knowledgeable, good to work with, a good fundraiser, but its been the consistency in excellence of the leadership. We haven’t had to change directions every two years because somebody new came in and they were interested in this and then two years later someone else comes in and they’re interested in that." - Tri-Moraine Audubon representative
Lesson #2: We’re all in this together.
Throughout the conversation, coalition members praised each other and emphasized how the group worked together toward a common mission. The sense of camaraderie in the room was tangible. Everyone seemed to genuinely enjoy working together. While such ‘esprit de corps’ is to be expected in a non-profit group that voluntarily forms out of a shared sense of purpose, it was more surprising for me to see among coalition members who represent such diverse interests, including parks and recreation, agriculture, and industry.
In their own words
"It’s never a confrontational setting. While we may have different points of view, we always have good discussions." -Potash Corporation representative
"All these people are committed and they are really trying to do what is best for the community. We really listen. We’re all learning and we’re changing our mind about a lot of things." -TriMoraine Audubon Society representative
"As a farmer, when I think about the Ottawa River, I think of drainage, not habitat. It was good for me to get involved with the Ottawa River Coalition because now I understand habitat." -County Commissioner
"When I came on board, I was the county drainage engineer. Based on what I had learned in college, I assumed we would be doing channelization. We were going to move stormwater from one area to the next. When I started meeting people in the [ORC] I learned that was not what we wanted to do. Certainly, you need to move stormwater, but you don’t need to destroy the environment in the process." - County Engineer
Lesson #3: Create an environment where you can learn from each other.
ORC members talked a lot about how much they have learned from each other. Perhaps it is the collaborative environment that allows members to openly share ideas and opinions, or it may be that the norm of sharing information has led to a sense of shared purpose. In any case, the open dialogue and exchange of information has clearly changed the perspective of several of the coalition members.
In their own words
"We do, first and foremost, function as a forum and we talk about issues as a whole, [which] is very important. ORC creates a respectful environment. We learn from each other. Members can share differing opinions." -Sanitary Engineer, City of Lima
"We’re helping create a stronger community by making it cleaner and safer. I’m really impressed with the skills and abilities that are present on this committee so I’m proud to be part of it. We all work together and it really does get things done." -Lima, Allen County Neighborhoods in Partnership representative
"These people are very dedicated to the community and they are willing to go the extra mile to try to help and make things better." -TriMoraine Audubon Society representative
"I came to appreciate the perspective of other members of the Coalition, why the river is important to them. You may come on board for other reasons, but it’s not long before you’re invested, you take ownership." - County Commissioner
Lesson #4: Connect people and their community to the river.
Proponents of collaborative watershed management consistently point to the importance of creating a shared vision and sense of purpose among stakeholder representatives. The shared purpose for the Ottawa River Coalition members was quite evident, and it was all about the river.
In their own words
"The Coalition is a good vehicle for us to really look at the vision we have for the river. The [state agencies] have their vision for the river but that doesn’t necessarily fully reflect what the local interests are in the community." -Representative of the City of Lima
"There really has been a sense of ownership that has developed around the river as a result of the work that’s being done here…It’s our community, [the Ottawa River] runs right through the center of our community in a way that ties us all together and the consequences of our actions are all part and parcel of what we see flow through the river every day." -Mayor, City of Lima
"I soon found out that after you’re on the coalition, and I’m going to give Beth the lion’s share of the credit for this, you become a fan of the river…[The river] is the lifeblood of the community."-County Commissioner
"One thing that draws everyone together is that we all share the common goal that we’re looking out for the best interests of the Ottawa River. So, we might come from different areas, whether it’s the private or public sector, but we’re all drawn to the river and looking out for its best interests." - Potash Corporation representative
Applying the 4 lessons
About now, you may be thinking, ‘Gee, how lucky the ORC is to have such a skilled coordinator and nice, friendly, cooperative people participating in the coalition. Not every watershed group is so lucky.’ To be honest, that was my initial thought too after leaving the meeting where everyone seemed so positive about Beth as the principal leader, the Coalition and their participation in the Coalition. However, on further reflection, I realized that there were plenty of hints from those who spoke of the virtues of the Coalition that keeping the ORC running and moving forward has not always been easy. Several participants noted that when they joined the board, they were not necessarily on board with the ORC mission. In fact, one member confessed that when he first joined the board as a representative of the Farm Bureau, his primary interest was to prevent the Coalition from being successful because he perceived the mission of the ORC to be in direct conflict with the interests of farmers in the watershed. But over time, as he met with the other Coalition members, he saw that everyone was working toward the same broad goal of improving the quality of water and habitat in the Ottawa River, while at the same time supporting the well-being of the residents of the watershed. In other words, it was in the process of meeting and hearing the different perspectives of the other stakeholders, and learning about the river and issues affecting the river that he came to trust the other members and to develop a sense of pride and ownership of the Ottawa River.
Several Coalition members noted how being part of the ORC changed their perspective on the river and their relationship to it and the other stakeholder representatives. And in case you think that the ORC just got lucky and accidentally stumbled on the right mix of stakeholder representatives, remember that the ORC is made up of dozens of agencies, businesses, and organizations representing environmental interests, public parks, agricultural industries, consultants, local political jurisdictions and regulated industries. Not only that, members of the board are term limited, so new leaders are continuously cycled on and off the board over time. I am convinced that the success of the ORC is less about luck and good chemistry and more about effective leadership and the effective application of collaborative processes that keep the Coalition members focused on what’s important (the Ottawa River), facilitates shared understanding and learning, and creates trusting relationships.
These are not new concepts, but I hope this profile will inspire some of you to go back to the basics when collaborative watershed initiatives get rough and remember that understanding, trust, and shared visions take time and patience. So, keep your chin up and always remember – it’s about the river!
You can learn more about the Ottawa River Coalition and their activities at http://www.thisismyriver.org/