NC_old1190: Catalysts for Water Resources Protection and Restoration: Applied Social Science Research

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

NC_old1190: Catalysts for Water Resources Protection and Restoration: Applied Social Science Research

Duration: 10/01/2016 to 09/30/2021

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Need as indicated by stakeholders

Individual and collective actions, intended and unintended, have consequences that put the quality of our water resources at risk. Non-point source (NPS) pollutants delivered across the landscape are a primary source of impairment of US waters (National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress; USEPA 2013). Although NPS pollution is diffuse, its ultimate source is readily understood as rooted in the day-to-day actions and management decisions of all citizens, urban and rural (Morton and Brown, 2011). The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) reports that siltation, nutrients, bacteria, metals, and oxygen-depleting substances are among the top contributors to water impairment in the nation ( USEPA estimates that the agricultural sector is the largest source of impairment affecting nearly half of all streams and rivers that have water quality problems and the source of more than 45% of damage to lakes and 18% of damage to estuaries (Ribaudo and Johansson 2006). In the Mississippi River watershed, agriculture contributes 71% of nitrogen and 80% of phosphorus to the Gulf of Mexico (Porter et al. 2015). Further, agriculture accounts for most of the drained wetlands in the contiguous 48 states (Hansen 2006) and a majority of threatened or endangered species listed (Cox 2007; Batie 2009). When an excess of pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment from human activities in agriculture, industries and urban areas leak into water bodies the result is often downstream eutrophication and hypoxia (insufficient oxygen to support aquatic life) (Gulf Hypoxia 2008 Action Plan). The incidence of hypoxia in coastal waters has increased 30-fold since 1960 (Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, 2010.), and is becoming a fixture in many freshwater systems including the Great Lakes.

Two water bodies with significant hypoxic zones are the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay. The Gulf of Mexico is fed by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, which drain a land mass comprising 41 percent of the contiguous United States. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and the third largest in the world. The watershed covers approximately 64,000 square miles of the northeast and mid-Atlantic states (New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, and Washington DC). Of particular concern in the Mississippi River Basin and the Chesapeake Bay region are the sediments, nitrogen, and phosphorous that derive from a combination of nonpoint sources (agriculture, development, and urban runoff) and point sources (wastewater treatment plants).All these problems will be exacerbated by climate change which is expected to lead to increased degradation of soil and water resources (Rossi et al., 2009; Collins et al., 2011).

Central to solving the problem of impaired waters is recognition of the role of humans, individually and collectively. Current land use decisions, identification of water resource problems, beliefs that the environment is at risk, perceptions of the need to act and willingness to engage in finding solutions are all factors that influence how water resources are managed. The importance of wide public involvement in solving the complex problems of water quality and NPS was a common theme in 2000 reports to USEPA by 39 states, tribes and territories submitting drinking water use data and reporting on the condition of their water bodies. A multi-state random sample water issue survey completed in 36 of the U.S. states (2002 through 2009) conducted by Dr. Robert Mahler, University of Idaho under a USDA Integrated Water Quality project reveals that the overall average perception for surface water quality is fair. The overall average perception of ground water quality is midway between fair and good/excellent, although higher than that of surface water (Hu and Morton 2012).

Although these findings suggest modest public awareness of water resources issues, key social, economic and ecological events and the mechanisms by which these conditions are translated into individual and collective actions and lead to changes in behaviors are not well understood. Similarly, the draft strategies on the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River Basin Task Force include many efforts to assist with land management at the local level through technical assistance, education, and financial resources to help land owners, local governments, and watershed-based organizations to make better decisions about land use and management. Public education campaigns can provide information to residents about the impacts of the land management activities on their nearby waterways. What is lacking, however, is an understanding of the decision-making process between awareness and action, or how other non-educational events might trigger awareness and action. Reimer et al. (2014) explore the complexities of understanding decision-making in the agricultural arena.

Importance of the work and what consequences are if it is not done

Policy tools designed to provide financial incentives and technical support for voluntary and cost effective actions by citizens and communities have been the dominant framework applied by agencies with NPS oversight. Voluntary approaches dominate largely because of the Clean Water Act’s exemption of nonpoint pollution (generally) from regulatory permit programs. This has meant using existing conservation programs and at times encouraging adaptive management. This approach has had limited success. The social sciences have not been systematically applied to discover which policy tools are most effective in changing behaviors and practices and to build a body of knowledge as to why they are effective, and how they might be modeled to guide future interventions. Yet programs are being created and implemented at multiple levels of government as well as by nonprofit organizations that attempt to change land management behavior without a clear social science knowledge base from which to create those interventions.

Although much of the biological science and technological solutions have been tested, the social and human science understanding of barriers and motivations for implementing/not implementing actions that reduce water resource impairments are not well understood. If we do not develop a clear, scientifically-sound understanding of human behaviors related to water management, we will continue to spend public money ineffectively on educational and voluntary programs without significant impact on water quality. Lack of adequate progress on water quality triggered regulatory actions in the Chesapeake Bay and could do so in the Mississippi River Basin or elsewhere. This move towards tighter regulations and punitive sanctions could put increasing pressure on both social and natural scientists to ensure that the science behind programs and policies is sound; currently, we do not have the social science knowledge we need to undergird such policy directions. This lack of social science knowledge ultimately results in an increased tension over the rights between the public and private ownership and use of water. The importance of understanding socioeconomic dimensions to increase voluntary adoption of practices is recognized by federal agencies working in partnership on Gulf Hypoxia (USEPA 2013).

We propose continuing this multistate research technical committee to begin to fill the gap in the knowledge base of social-human interactions with water resource management. The overarching research question of this project is: What are the key catalysts that interact with social and ecological conditions to create change in conservation behaviors, resource management, and governance within a water context? Specifically,

a. How are key catalysts for change in conservation behavior, resource management, and governance translated into individual, collective, and institutional action? b. How are catalysts influenced by socio-economic, institutional, and ecological conditions? c. What types of outcomes emerge from various types of catalysts? d. What are the various institutional roles in addressing these processes?

Our lack of understanding of the decision-making process is not limited to the area of water resource management. Research is also needed in the broader area of environmentally significant behavior (e.g. Stern 2000). A report from the National Research Council on environmental research priorities for the social and behavioral sciences identified understanding and better informing individuals’ environmentally significant behavior as one of the five top priority research areas (Brewer & Stern, 2005). Research in environmentally significant behavior may inform and guide water resource management.

Technical feasibility of the research

This group of scientists has been working together for over five years. We have made significant progress in identifying catalysts of change and have developed a preliminary typology that examines catalysts for change within an individual watershed (Prokopy et al. 2014). We are making progress on a second typology; a preliminary version is included in the next section. This team has documented its ability to work together with numerous publications, conference sessions and grant proposals written jointly – see annual reports for further information.

Advantages of doing the work as a multistate effort

Current team members represent two key basins - Mississippi River and Chesapeake Bay - that contribute to the development of significant hypoxic zones in major national water bodies. These two areas are also currently the focus of major federal and state efforts to remediate and prevent pollution. Multi- state efforts create openings for quasi-experimental designs and comparative analysis. Working through a multistate team will enable the researchers to develop and test knowledge about the individual and collective actions to improve water quality across multiple ecological, cultural, political, and social contexts. In other words, working across regions will allow the researchers to more accurately identify triggers of behavioral change and under what conditions those triggers effect change. Further, many of the social scientists participating in this research have excellent case study data that are specific to their states or regions. Working across multiple states will allow for comparisons of these cases to identify key variables. To date, the opportunities and funding for across state collaboration have been limited.

Likely impacts from successfully completing the work

We see two broad types of impacts of this work, enhanced knowledge for academics and improved programs and decision- making for policy-makers. First, we envision enhanced knowledge about the triggers of behavioral change related to water resources. To do this, we will continue to synthesize past and current case studies across states to identify common and unique social patterns that influence individual and collective actions. We will develop models of the mechanisms by which these events/conditions lead to both individual and collective actions related to local water resource management. Using this research, we will develop formal individual, collective and multi-level models of behavior related to water resource management that can then be tested across multiple scales and regions.

The second major area of impact of this research will be to provide information and guidance for resource management agencies (such as EPA and state level agencies) so that they have an enhanced understanding of the contribution of the social sciences to solving impaired water issues. These agencies will be better poised to develop tools for encouraging conservation behaviors that supplement and enhance current educational efforts. We also expect to develop adaptive management strategy guidelines that can be used to guide community development interventions, such as those used by nonprofit natural resource organizations (e.g., local watershed groups) and local government agencies to effectively mobilize resources for consistent water quality outcomes.

Related, Current and Previous Work

A CRIS review in 2016 found 52 records that included the terms "water" and "social dimensions"; 180 records were found with a search for "watershed" and "attitudes".   Few of these projects, however, are related to this project. For example, Nejadhashemi et al. (Hatch project funded in 2014) integrates climate scenarios, watershed modeling, and social processes.  Jordan et al. (funded 2013) focuses on identifying biomass production and supply-chain systems that enhance social benefits for farmers and rural communities.  Gonzales (funded 2009) examines water conflicts in Indian Country.  Leishnham et al. (funded in 2012) examine social factors that lead to adoption of Best Management Practices in a Maryland watershed. However, none of these projects focuses on understanding actions and decisions of the ordinary citizen and the influence individual and collective actions have on managing water resources effectively and for the common good. 

This multistate project has been working together for over five years and has made substantial progress towards developing catalysts and understanding how they can lead to watershed protection and restoration. As a result, we have removed an objective that appeared in our last proposal that dealt with identifying and developing catalysts of change as we believe we have made sufficient progress towards this objective. Specifically we developed a conceptual framework of how change occurs in watersheds by reviewing published literature (see Prokopy et al. 2014 and figure 1), we developed a typology of catalyst events (see Prokopy et al. 2014 and table 1) and we explored the role of baseline conditions in creating optimal conditions for change (see Babin et al. 2015). We have continued to build on this work and have developed a catalytic processes framework (figure 2) for organizing our research and focusing our work on catalytic processes to better understand how they contribute to and respond to changing conditions and iterative positive and negative impacts that occur. Catalytic processes are multi-dimensional and iterative, encompassing temporal (time), biophysical, and social scales that even as they change create feedback mechanisms leading to trajectories of future change. The geobiophysical influences and impacts (geography [place based/not place-based] and social influences and impacts (individual, group, institutional, nation-state, global) can result in changes in baseline conditions over time and space leading to: a. maladaption, hypercoherence, b. adaptation, c. sustained change, d. transformation, and/or e. irreversibility. Of interest to our research are a set of master variables of catalytic processes that drive or prevent change from occurring: 1. Trigger(s) (pulse) one or multiple events converge to initiate change [tipping point] 2. Bioaccumulation of events (presses) that amplify pressures; may be invisible but ultimately weaken status quo/current state of affairs and make vulnerable/receptive to a “trigger” that initiates change [feedback loop amplification) 3. Social dimensions at multiple scales, often iterative and multi-directional 4. Biophysical dimensions at multiple scales, often iterative and multi-directional. Current and previous work of NC1190 participants include testing and assessing different aspects of this framework to validate and refine. Other current work by team members is outlined below. Drs. Ken Genskow (UW-Madison) and Linda Prokopy (Purdue) finished work on the Social Indicators Planning and Evaluation System (SIPES) during the last five year project with the participation of many other NC1190 team members. This work provides consistent measures for assessing awareness, attitudes and behaviors of individuals towards water quality issues and practices. (See Genskow and Prokopy 2011 for more information) and has been used in over 30 watersheds in the Great Lakes region. Along with Dr. Nick Babin (formerly at Purdue; now at Taylor University), they have conducted extensive trainings on the use of the system. Dr. Lois Wright Morton at Iowa State has been conducting research at the climate/weather and water nexus with a focus on decisions associated with managing water and soil resources and farm practices at many scales. Unpredictable weather, both drought and extreme rain events, can cause hard-to-control flooding within mainstem rivers and their tributaries that result in damage to levees, flood control structures and navigation channels which in turn affect soil degradation and loss of agricultural productivity, damage river vessels, and communities along these rivers. Research findings that document field-level agricultural practices and region-wide management strategies that influence local and regional vulnerability to variable weather conditions includes the publication of 14 papers in the Levees and Flooding of Agricultural Land Series which have been cited over 100 times (Morton and Olson 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Other related research on climate variability and impacts on agricultural production decision making includes journal articles published in 2013-2014 on agricultural stakeholder views on climate change (Prokopy et al. 2015; Arbuckle et al. 2015; Morton 2014-JSWC), Achieving water security in agriculture: the human factor in Agronomy Journal (Morton 2014), Addressing soil degradation and flood risk decision making in levee protected agricultural lands (Morton and Olson 2014 ), a research agenda for expanding our understanding of what motivates farmers’ conservation behaviors (Morton, Hobbs, Arbuckle 2013; Reimer et al. 2014; Morton, Hobbs, Arbuckle, and Loy 2015) and a book chapter, Impacts of Climate Change on People and Communities of Rural America, in the book Rural American in the Globalizing World (Morton and Rudel 2014). Two journal articles have been published on farmer identity research as it influences management practices that affect water quality and soil loss have explored the relationships among individuals and groups as drivers to sustained change in conservation management. At SUNY ESF, Dr. Theresa Selfa has a currently funded USDA AFRI seed grant to look at water availability and governance in the Lake Ontario basin. In contrast to Western US, in much of the northeast water has been abundant and therefore water use has not been monitored or regulated. Considering ongoing climate change, the project will investigate the possible implications of shifting more agriculture from the western to the eastern US. The project evaluates water quantity and availability for agricultural use in the Lake Ontario basin while considering competing needs including drinking water and ecosystem environmental needs. She will be combining modeling with interviews with farmers to explore their current and future irrigation practices. Additionally, this team aims to provide knowledge essential for regulatory and governance decisions that will help insure U.S. food security. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Adena Rissman has numerous papers forthcoming including one that examined narratives of social-environmental change, comparing local stakeholder interviews of catalysts for change with the narratives that were produced by an integrated scenarios development project for the Yahara Watershed, Wisconsin called Yahara2070. This is in revision with the journal Ecology and Society (Wardropper et al. in review). Another paper mapped 30 efforts to improve water quality and compared them with sources of phosphorus, finding a spatial disconnect between where most action occurs and where the high-phosphorus subwatersheds are (Wardropper et al. 2015). Over the past five years, J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. at Iowa State University has conducted several surveys and in-depth interviews focused on farmers’ decisions and behaviors related to soil and water conservation. As director of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of Iowa Farmers, he has measured farmers’ nutrient management behaviors, awareness and concern about water quality issues, and attitudes toward Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He has also co-authored papers with NC1190 members Lois Wright Morton, Linda Prokopy, Amber Mase, Nick Babin, and Rebecca Power. Over the next five years, Arbuckle will serve as lead-PI on a five-year survey (2015-2020), funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, which will examine Iowa farmers’ soil and water quality-related awareness, attitudes, and behaviors over time. Dr. Kristin Floress at the USFS has tested governance frameworks on watershed planning cases in Wisconsin to determine how plans can be used to more effectively catalyze action. She has used community capacity for watershed management model and the SIPES framework to assess watershed and lake planning in Wisconsin. Dr. Cody Knutson and the Planning and Social Science Team at the National Drought Mitigation Center (UNL) and Stephen Gasteyer (MSU) have been collaborating with other social scientists to investigate application of the Community Capitals Framework (Flora and Flora, 2008; Emery and Flora, 2006) to address questions about catalysts posed in Prokopy et al. (2014) in relation to drought and other natural hazards. They organized a conference at the University of Nebraska in 2014 on the topic (, have integrated the framework into community and statewide drought training in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Montana (2013-2015), and applied for grants to investigate the application of the framework in communities affected by natural hazards. Dr. Eric Kaufmann, Dr. Mark Burbach and Dr. Kristin Floress co-authored a journal article (Burbach, Floress, and Kaufman, 2015) addressing the following question: "Are water-related leadership development programs designed to be effective?” Dr. Kaufmann’s involvement contributed to involvement in a small funded project to assess factors associated with civic organization involvement in environmental improvement projects. Dr. Mae Davenport developed, tested and refined a multi-level community capacity model for watershed management through qualitative and quantitative data collection. This work examines community-level catalysts and constraints to address water issues. She also conducted watershed-scale research across four Minnesota basins examining water issues including agricultural nutrient management, riparian buffer adoption, stormwater management, drainage management, groundwater protection, aquatic invasive species prevention and recreation/tourism system adaptation among landowners, residents, local government staff and natural resource professionals. She developed state-wide social measures monitoring system, aquatic invasive species prevention evaluation system, and a standardized parks and trails survey tool for state, watershed, and county-level agencies to conduct baseline social science assessments and track outcomes of capacity-building programs. This work was done in collaboration with multiple state agencies and local units of government. Dr. Jessica Ulrich-Schad at South Dakota State University has analyzed survey data that examines nutrient management decision-making and use of conservation practices among agricultural landowners (including absentee) and producers in Indiana with other team members from Purdue University (Linda Prokopy, Nick Babin). Two manuscripts are under review using this data and she has presented findings in a webinar with state-level collaborators for the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Schad has also conducted analyses of pre-post SIPES survey data from two watersheds in Indiana to provide a sense of whether local water conservation outreach efforts were effective among both agricultural and urban/lake residents with Linda Prokopy and local watershed group leaders (Busse et al. in press). Dr. Schad also worked with Indiana NRCS to design and conduct a social indicator survey and in-depth interviews on conservation practice attitudes and usage among English and Amish farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin. She has extended the research with the Amish farmers to also examine conservation agency professionals' perceptions of how to best work with this understudied population. She is working on multiple papers with Dr. Prokopy to disseminate findings from this research. Dr. Dana Hoag at Colorado State has been working to understand when, where and why water quality trading for nutrients would work. He is looking at the Jordan Lake watershed in North Carolina, where a program is being implemented. His research shows an unwillingness to cooperate that is beyond that seen in other programs (Motellebi et al. a,b,c in review). He is also looking at putting a twist on a traditional study of the attributes of adopters. He is holding adopters fixed, and varying the attributes of the conservation practice. This is a different way of looking at conservation. Dr. Hoag is looking at how you could change the attributes of the practice to make it more acceptable to a fixed population. Data has been collected and initial econometrics have been completed. Most of Dr. Brasier’s current work at Penn State focuses on energy and she plans to discuss behavioral reactions in the context of the water-energy nexus with the NC1190 team. Dr. Brasier is co-PI on a project to document the status of the watershed movement in Pennsylvania. This project will draw on work she and colleagues conducted approximately 12 years ago to assess the activities, needs, and effectiveness of community watershed organizations in the state. The current project will determine the dynamism of the sector given substantial changes in the policy context and priority of natural issues (most notably the emergence of unconventional energy extraction) in Pennsylvania. This research will include interviews with technical service providers and government officials, a survey of watershed organization leaders, and interviews with a select group of leaders to describe how political, social, and environmental changes have affected the viability and capacity of the nonprofit environmental sector to co-manage natural resources. In 2015, Dr. Sarah Church and Dr. Prokopy at Purdue University conducted an evaluation of the Indian Creek watershed conservation project in Livingston County, IL in which they identified many successes. These successes included unprecedented producer participation in cost-share programs, changes in producer behavior, continued participation in watershed activities by a diverse group of local stakeholders, and increased producer awareness of water quality issues and the influence of nitrogen management on soil and water health. In an article coming out of this evaluation, Purdue researchers will test catalyst typologies identified in Prokopy et al. (2014.) Working on groundwater management in the High Plains Aquifer areas and the Middle East, Dr. Stephen Gasteyer used comparative historical analysis to test existing behavioral typologies of changes in groundwater management over time. He found that groundwater management was largely the result of institutional, rather than attitudinal changes, over time. His work in Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan, likewise found that localities can develop adaptive strategies to water quality impairments through the development of social capital among land owners and other responsible institutions, provided that there are political processes that provide incentives for local action. Dr. Joan M. Brehm has conducted watershed social assessments in three Illinois watersheds since 2008; Kaskaskia River Watershed, Nippersink Creek Watershed, and Lake Bloomington/Lake Evergreen Watersheds. These social assessments facilitate effective and targeted implementation of various conservation efforts (as outlined in the place-specific watershed management plans) though a more accurate understanding of current values and attitudes towards the natural resources within the watershed. This understanding, in turn, is utilized to develop place-specific outreach and education efforts to improve stewardship of water quality and natural resources within the watershed. The social assessment utilize a mixed-methods approach, including qualitative interviews, mail surveys, and surveys administered with a more personal drop-off/pick-up method to improve response rates. At ERS, Dr. Marc Ribaudo led a project titled Nitrogen in Agricultural Systems: Implications for Conservation Policy that was completed in 2011 (Ribaudo et al., 2011). This study used ERS-NASS survey data to examine the status of nitrogen management on major U.S. field crops. Alternative policy mechanisms for getting farmers to adopt improved nitrogen management practices, including taxes, subsidies, emissions markets, and compliance, were also studied. From 2012-2014 Ribaudo led a project titled An Economic Assessment of Policy Options to Reduce Agricultural Pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay that evaluated alternative policy approaches for meeting water quality goals in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (Ribaudo et al., 2014). The research used NRCS-CEAP data to identify least-cost combinations of conservation practices across the Bay watershed for achieving goals, given different constraints on policy design. Ribaudo also assessed the impact that baseline decisions in water quality trading programs have on both the likelihood that agricultural producers would benefit from trading, and on the potential for non-additional credits to enter a market (Ribaudo, Savage, and Talberth, 2014; Ribaudo and Savage, 2014). Ribaudo also collaborated with an economist in Finland to compare strategies for reducing agricultural nonpoint source pollution in the Chesapeake with those applied to pollution problems in the Baltic Sea (Antti, Ribaudo, and Hyytiäinen, 2015). Dr. Mark Burbach conducted an annual evaluation of a water leader’s development program. He further conducted collaborative research and published peer-reviewed articles on antecedents of farmer conservation practices and assessments of water management institutions (Czap, Czap, Lynne, and Burbach, 2015; Hoffman Babbitt, Burbach, and Pennisi, 2015). Dr. Joe Bonnell at The Ohio State University has been director of the Ohio Watershed Academy extension education program since 2000. The Ohio Watershed Academy is focused on building the capacity of watershed leaders to conduct effective collaborative watershed planning and implementation through civic engagement, outreach and education, and other social and behavioral change processes. Dr. Bonnell was part of the Social Indicators Planning and Evaluation System (SIPES) work group and has conducted numerous farmer surveys and program evaluation surveys of watershed leadership programs to identify core competencies of watershed leaders. He recently published an extension bulletin titled, “Social Indicators for Watershed Leadership” which offers a framework of indicators for evaluating watershed leaders’ effectiveness. The publication is based on research funded by the Ohio EPA and involving in-depth interviews with watershed leaders around Ohio. Dr. Bonnell is also lead PI on a project funded by the North Central Region Water Network to assess the educational needs of watershed leaders in the north central US in the areas of collaboration and civic engagement. From 2011-2015, Dr. Doug Jackson-Smith at Utah State helped lead a USDA-funded participatory research project in a central Montana watershed to collaborate with local farmers to conduct on-farm field research and facilitate discussions leading to development of appropriate management practices to reduce high nitrate levels in local groundwater. High levels of nitrates in local wells, and fears of potential state or federal regulation of nitrogen fertilizer was a catalyst that motivated farmers to engage with this issue. He is currently collecting a final wave of survey and qualitative data to assess whether the participatory approach has impacted farmers’ perceptions of the problem and interest/willingness to adopt recommended management practices. A key research question is whether a new approach to engaging farmers in a watershed can catalyze innovative solutions and changes in attitudes leading to behavioral change.


  1. Test already developed typologies of catalysts for change in conservation behavior, resource management and governance in a water context to determine the mechanisms and conditions by which catalysts are translated into individual, collective, and institutional action.
  2. Understand and develop typologies of individual, institutional, and collective actions and social and ecological outcomes.
  3. Synthesize and assess conceptual frameworks and analytical models of catalysts, conditions and potential outcomes.
  4. Identify, develop and evaluate adaptive strategies to achieve desired actions and capacities to protect water resources.


Synergy across states Multiple researchers are engaged in work on catalysts for change. We have established a template for standardizing gathering, sharing, and evaluating case study information to synthesize research protocol, findings, and implications. We are using similar survey questions and research design protocol to enhance future capacity to conduct cross-state comparisons. This collaboration enables identification of social and ecological catalyzing events across watersheds and geopolitical contexts, at multiple scales, and with diverse methodologies. We have established a listserv and a shared folder on dropbox to facilitate this dialogue. We have and continue to collaborate on research proposals, many of which have been funded. We are collaborating on journal articles on catalysts of change and will continue to explore grants and contracts around human dimensions of water. Several researchers have collaborated on a book entitled Pathways for Getting to Better Water Quality: The Citizen Effect. Researchers have collaborated on joint panel presentations at ISSRM and AWRA, and will continue to explore these opportunities in the future. We are currently working on two submissions for panel presentations for the 2016 ISSRM conference. We share insight on upcoming RFPs, conferences, and calls for papers. We continue to recruit new members with expertise across the human dimensions of water through panel presentations, list serves, and existing professional networks. Collectively, our research has common and emerging themes and implications for water resource planning and management outcomes. Some of these include enhancing community resilience and adaptation to water-human system stressors including flooding, water quality impairment, natural gas exploration, climate change, bioenergy, urban-rural land use dynamics, and water quality trading. We will apply and disseminate new knowledge to inform water users and decision-makers. A mixed methods approach will be used to identify, examine and test key social and ecological events and those mechanisms which influence individual and collective actions. Specific tasks we are currently planning for objectives are discussed below. Additional tasks will emerge over the course of the five years. Objective 1. Test already developed typologies of catalysts for change in conservation behavior, resource management and governance in a water context to determine the mechanisms and conditions by which catalysts are translated into individual, collective, and institutional action. There are a number of key conditions and mechanisms that influence individual, collective and institutional responses to social and ecological events. These range from social-psychological internal mechanisms to structural factors. Social-psychological mechanisms include attitudes, beliefs, self concepts, and identities, and perceptions of risk. Meso-structural mechanisms are social pressures, social networks, social connections and relationships, social norms, group dynamics, social position and structure, and information access, processing and management. Community and regional structural mechanisms are institutional arrangements (laws, policies, governance structures), demographic and interactional community characteristics, public discourse, information flows, social narratives, institutional collaborations and partnerships, civic structure, local power dynamics and political culture, local history, geography and the natural resource base, and policy networks. Social theories underlie each of these mechanisms, but most have not been extensively applied to water resource management and need further examination to understand the magnitude and direction of their influence on individual, collective, and institutional action. We propose six overarching hypotheses. The first three examine mechanisms that drive change in individuals, groups and institutions. The second three hypotheses focus on mechanisms for sustaining action over time. Overarching hypotheses H1a. There are key mechanisms that drive change in individual actions H1b. There are key mechanisms that drive change in collective actions H1c. There are key mechanisms that drive change in institutional actions H1d. There are key mechanisms that influence individual capacities to sustain action. H1e. There are key mechanisms that influence collective capacities to sustain action H1f. There are key mechanisms that influence institutional capacities to sustain action. Although we have separated individual, collective, and institutional actions in our hypotheses, we expect to find substantive interactions at multiple levels. The units of analysis for testing Objective 1 hypotheses include individuals, groups, and communities including small watersheds (e.g. HUC 12) and basin levels. Sub-hypotheses that specify and test key mechanisms will be developed by scientific team members The methodologies used to assess the magnitude and direction of specific mechanisms under specific social and ecological conditions will be determined by the hypotheses or research questions proposed. Both qualitative and quantitative methods will be applied and used to triangulate or verify findings. Qualitative methods will include key informant interviews, focus groups, analyses of archival data, media accounts, public testimonies, and public records. Quantitative methods will include primary data collection and analysis of surveys as well as secondary data analyses of existing data sources such as the US Population Census, Census of Agriculture, General Social Survey (GSS) and other pre-existing survey data sets. Some specific projects to address this objective are discussed below. Several team members, led by Drs. Brasier and Floress, use existing case study material to further examine the typology developed in Prokopy et al. 2014 and included here as figure 1 and the instigation of individual and collective action. Dr. Adena Rissman at UW-Madison is convening a group to write a comparative case study paper on the dynamics of different water quality improvement efforts in bridging or expanding urban-rural divides. Substantial divides between urban and rural residents have been documented related to natural resources values, beliefs about water quality problems, political ideology, and interactions with governing institutions. Watershed improvement efforts often involve bringing farmers and other rural residents into dialogue or formal agreements with urban water managers and community leaders. They propose to categorize different mechanisms by which water quality improvement efforts may influence the urban-rural divide, including material (exchange of goods), financial (providing urban funding to rural areas), discursive (reframing events or problems as shared), values, attitudes, behavioral beliefs (such as creating personal and emotional connections or shared sense of responsibility); informational (providing knowledge of agriculture to urbanites or of urban efforts to farmers), and institutional (linking urban and rural decision-making, rules, and legal enforcement). They will also seek to expand on the concept of “the urban-rural divide” toward a more nuanced understand of urban-rural connections. They will compare 4-6 cases of water quality improvement efforts focusing on the effects of water quality improvement actions and catalysts on urban-rural divides. Objective 2. Understand and develop typologies of individual, institutional, and collective actions and social and ecological outcomes. Typologies provide a means of classifying and understanding common attributes with which certain outcomes are associated (Doty & Glick, 1994). Through classification, it is possible to develop better policies and programs that meet needs in specific watershed management scenarios, as has been done in other fields of resource management (e.g. Ross-Davis & Broussard, 2007). By developing typologies across cases, common types of actions and outcomes will be identified. Resultant typologies can inform future work so that resources are used more effectively, instead of assuming that one type of program can meet all needs. Action typologies in the case of watershed management will likely be driven by socio-economic characteristics, social structural characteristics, and focusing events. Overarching hypotheses H2a. Individual’s actions can be segmented into a typology based upon social and ecological outcomes H2b. Institutional actions can be segmented into a typology based upon social and ecological outcomes H2c. Collective actions can be segmented into a typology based upon social and ecological outcomes Information from objective 1, particularly conditions and catalysts for change, will allow for the development of typologies of action across individual, institutional, and collective levels. Quantitative methods will include cluster analysis to develop types of action at each level, and confirmatory factor analysis when a specific set of variables are a priori hypothesized to influence action types. Qualitative methods will include grounded theory and comparative analysis (Corbin and Strauss 2008) to identify action themes, patterns, and relationships across individuals, groups, and geopolitical contexts. Specific projects: Dr. Kristin Floress is leading work with Dr. Prokopy, Dr. Genskow, and Dr. Brehm to build a hierarchical linear model of water quality behaviors using states as first level and watersheds as second level units of analysis. This effort will use the theoretical basis of the SIPES project. Numerous team members will continue their research into understanding what motivates individual actions. For example, Dr. Davenport will further develop and test a moral obligation model for conservation behavior and examine the role of self-efficacy in agricultural producer decision making. Dr. Prokopy will be conducting research to understand how agricultural retailers influence farmer decision-making in watersheds in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Team members are exploring the appropriate or reasonable use of willingness to adopt variables versus actual adoption variables. This will involve a literature review of the agriculture, forestry, and energy sectors; and development of a set of conditions for the appropriate use of each variable. Objective 3. Synthesize and assess conceptual frameworks and analytical models of catalysts, conditions and potential outcomes. The integration of multiple scales of social interaction from individual, to group, to watershed community to regional communities requires several types of modeling. Using the results of research findings from Objectives 1 and 2, the team will develop parsimonious models of relationships among social-economic, institutional and ecological systems. We propose to develop structural models of the relationships of key mechanisms to specific types of events and conditions. Structural equation modeling (SEM) provides a method for the incorporation of mediating variables and the examination of latent constructs in the study of behavior (Kline, 2005), and has been used to study a variety of behaviors as they relate to the environment (e.g. Oreg and Katz-Gerro 2006). We will develop and test structural models across different watershed populations and key events to determine if and how data collected in objectives 1 and 2 impact behaviors, with the key purpose of identifying consistent factors. Society is composed of individuals who have a distribution of thresholds (Yin 1998). Individual actions influence other individual actions and collectively influence the tipping point at which society accepts a new condition as the social norm (Granovetter 1978). Threshold models of collective actions are useful for modeling the minimum proportion of the population who must publically identify a problem such as water impairment exists before other actors do (Wood and Doan 2003). Social definitions of water resource issues are precursors to public actions, thus the problem definition process is central to identifying the social pathways of individual and collective change. We will utilize data collected in Objectives 1 and 2 and develop threshold models of collective behaviors. Overarching hypotheses H3 There are key antecedents of individual and collective actions that can be measured and modeled. Specific Projects: Dr. Kristin Floress, Dr. Linda Prokopy, Dr. Mark Burbach, Dr. Stephen Gasteyer, and Dr. Marc Ribaudo are co-editing a book that will contain contributions from other NC1190 team members. The tentative title of the book is: Catalyzing Change: Social Science Research Approaches for Natural Resources Management. This book will demonstrate how social science theories and methods are used to catalyze change across a broad range of natural resources management issues and geographic scales. Case studies will be used to illustrate how these theories and methods are applied. It will provide managers a resource they can use to understand how social science research can help them achieve their desired outcomes more effectively, and it will be a useful text for undergraduate and graduate courses. Practical applications and impact of the research will be included for each case, including, when appropriate, a box with insight from a community or project partner. Future work by the UNL team and Dr. Stephen Gasteyer at MSU will include writing an article on the community capitals framework as it could be applied to natural hazard research and seeking funding to develop additional case studies on its application to a larger number of hazard-affected communities. The goal is to better understand the community capitals that lead to positive outcomes during drought and other hazards. Dr. Mae Davenport plans to replicate quantitative survey research to examine trends in conservation behavior and impacts of community capacity building programs. Objective 4. Identify, develop and evaluate adaptive strategies to achieve desired actions and capacities to protect water resources. Throughout the project, investigators and collaborators will share research design strategies, methods, tools, and findings to facilitate best research practices and ensure transferability and applicability of research findings across social and ecological contexts. In addition, investigators will engage diverse stakeholders as project advisors to inform research design, ensure meaningful participation of diverse subjects, and provide practical guidance on potential study implications and recommendations. Stakeholders will be engaged in evaluation of outreach including interventions and management strategies. Based on results from Objectives 1, 2, & 3 and through collaboration between investigators and with diverse stakeholders adaptive management strategies will be developed. These strategies will be grounded in social science and water resource management theory but will be driven by the synthesis of practical knowledge emerging from the project. Through the collective and coordinated efforts of investigators, collaborators and stakeholders, science-based adaptive management strategies for building individual, collective, and institutional capacities for desired water resource management processes and outcomes will be delivered. Strategy development will be facilitated by ongoing dialogue between investigators and web-based collaboration tools such as Dropbox. Specific projects: Dr. Kaufmann will lead an effort to build upon the exploratory study already conducted related to leadership development programs. The ideal research will be a quasi-experimental design that compares several state-level programs, assessing both their educational approach and behavioral outcomes. The mixed methods study will involve both a questionnaire and interviews. Collaboration with NC1190 members in each state will be helpful for conducting this research. This work will include exploring best practices for public education and civic dialogue surrounding water research protection and restoration. Dr. Davenport will pilot and refine statewide social science assessment tools in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She will continue to provide training and coaching to state agencies and local units of government in social science assessment. Dr. Marc Ribaudo’s major research project over the next two years is an evaluation of alternative policy approaches for reducing nitrogen loadings to the Gulf of Mexico in order to meet the hypoxia reductions goals of the Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. He and colleagues will be using data from NRCS-CEAP and the ERS REAP model to evaluate the economic consequences of policies that restrict nitrogen loadings to the Gulf or to interior watersheds (HUC-4), or that require the use of specific nutrient management practices such as reduced nutrient application rates, cover crops, drainage water management, and vegetative filter. He and colleagues will also use data from the Census of Agriculture to identify the characteristics of farms in the Mississippi Basin that apply excess nitrogen to cropland.

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Shared Database of Events and Typologies. This will include a relational database shared by team members that include records of individual and collective actions and typology of events and conditions. This will include case studies, event and condition typologies, and lists of associated actors, watershed groups, government agencies, and water quality organizations. The database will also categorize records by the type of data collected, instruments used in data collection, and the questions asked.
  • Special issues of journals and journal articles.
  • Book focused on catalysts.
  • Conferences or special sessions of conferences. For example, ISSRM, RSS and SWCS.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Improved Conservation Policies and Programming. These will focus on the types of actions (individual or collective) that best address particular problems in addition to the factors and forces that influence individual and collective action for water resource conservation with recommendations for appropriate reward/incentive combinations to promote conservation. This type of information will enhance the response of agencies as well as having the potential to enhance the quality of water as a natural resource. This will include new organizational and methodological approaches to watershed management and water quality trading.
  • Remove Redundancy in Water Resource Management and Build Collaboration among Stakeholders. By identifying the manner in which these actions occur, less energy will expended on the typical shotgun approach (providing large amounts of resources on a first-come, first-serve volunteer basis) to water resource management and more focused efforts can be targeted to catalyze local and regional water quality enhancement projects. This streamlining of efforts can also take advantage of the networks of researchers, agencies and their personnel, and other community stakeholder groups. This will provide a model for understanding and promoting individual and collective action.
  • Enhanced Synergy among Team Members. There are not many social scientists working in the field of water resources management. NC1190 brings these individuals together. Outcomes of this synergy include: more competitive grant proposals will be written and funded, research will be relevant and not needlessly duplicated, junior members of the team will be mentored and supported, and the social sciences will earn more respect in team members’ universities.


(0):eline table attached (see instructions for NC projects that request a timeline vs. milestones)

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

Objective 4 which is a participatory research-participant learning model will be the basis for developing strategies for sharing the research of Objectives 1-3 and our dominant outreach plan. However, we expect to share findings yearly with public and private agencies whose missions are water quality through public presentations and publications.


The committee will be governed by three positions elected for a one year term: chair, vice chair, and secretary. The chair of the committee will be responsible for organizing the meeting agenda, conducting the meeting and assuring the task assignments are completed. The vice chair has responsibility for planning the annual meeting (with support from members) and supports the chair by carrying out duties assigned by the chair. The vice chair will serve as chair in the absence of the elected chair. The secretary is responsible for the distribution of the documents prior to the meeting, keeping records on decisions made at the meetings (minutes), maintaining an updated roster of participants, and preparing/submitting the accomplishment report (SAES-422). Members will carry out the agreed research collaboration, research coordination, information exchange and advisory activities. Members are responsible for reporting their progress, contributing to the committee progress towards objectives and communicating their accomplishments to other committee members and their respective employing institutions.

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Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

Economic Research Service (ERS), Illinois State University, Ohio State University, other: RI, South Dakota State University, University of Oregon, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USDA Forest Service, USDA-ERS/RED
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