Solidifying Stakeholder Engagement

By Aaron R. Conklin

Data-based groundwater flow models can be a fantastic way for hydrogeologists (scientists who study groundwater) to inform the public about the potential impact well pumping, irrigation and land use decisions can have on a groundwater system.

However, these models are not particularly useful if the key stakeholders and decision-makers they’re intended to inform — from residents to private well owners, politicians and large-scale growers — ignore them or view them with mistrust and suspicion. Removing those barriers is the aim of a pair of Kens — Bradbury, the director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey (University of Wisconsin-Extension), and Genskow, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Supported by funding from the University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute, they have been conducting interviews and meetings with stakeholder groups to better understand each group’s concerns and develop stakeholder-informed scenarios to assess future water management practices with ground-water flow models. They aim to bridge the gap between model-based science and stakeholder engagement.

“There’s confusion among stakeholders about what models can do,” said Bradbury. “One of the things we often hear is ‘That’s just from a model — that’s not reality.’ Models are a way of understanding how a system works and assessing what happens when factors change. Stakeholders sometimes view models with suspicion, thinking that the model results will be biased and favor one outcome over another. A model might produce results they don’t like, but the model isn’t ‘lying.’ We have to take that into context in our decision-making.”

It doesn’t necessarily help that the complex nature of the problems groundwater flow models are useful in investigating — for example, the effects of a particularly heavy summer thunderstorm on groundwater recharge — are often transient, making them challenging to communicate. The project was sparked in part by ongoing controversy in Wisconsin’s agriculture community, where larger farms with high capacity irrigation wells are being criticized for drawing large amounts of groundwater, especially in the Central Sands region.

“The wells and irrigation systems are very visible,” said Bradbury.

Genskow sees the issue of citizen and stakeholder engagement as one of resource management. While it’s important to try to get the stakeholders involved in a meaningful way, the question isn’t just about presenting the information to them — it’s also about incorporating and respecting the stake-holders’ values and engaging in a dialogue. In other words, human perspectives are important to consider when setting out to define a scientific research question, including how the study is designed, what data is used in the analysis and what societal implications there are from the outcome of a study.

That’s where Maribeth Kniffin comes into the picture. A UW-Madison graduate student, she’s undertaken the task of talking to stakeholders in one-on-one interviews and small groups to learn about their perspectives, values and concerns.

Kniffin contends that most people don’t object to science in and of itself, but rather the way it’s portrayed and used. Too often, she pointed out, the individuals and groups involved in controversial water-use issues aren’t willing to state their assumptions and be transparent about their concerns in larger groups — two key things that can go a long way towards building trust.

“Trust is the main factor that determines whether science gets used or doesn’t get used,” said Kniffin. “And the good news is that trust is buildable.” Kniffin said she was surprised to discover some of these groundwater issues aren’t nearly as polarizing as they’re portrayed in the media. She was also intrigued to learn that many of the stakeholders, including growers and private citizens, had been collecting their own scientific data.

“It’s interesting that they chose to do it themselves,” said Kniffin. “Data from citizens is important, and it’s also valid. It can be useful to supplement data collected by scientists provided that the methodology is rigorous.”

For instance, in the Long Lake-Plainfield area in Waushara County, Kniffin has been collecting personal photos from stakeholders that show changes in the lake water levels over time — yet another way to engage stakeholders in the scientific and decision-making process in a way that values their perspective and unique expertise. Careful mapping that accurately shows where private citizen wells are located also helps.

“When stakeholders see that their information has been used, it builds credibility,” she said.

One thing that’s become obvious is that involving stakeholders early in the scientific analysis and decision-making process is absolutely critical to ensuring engagement and making scientific outcomes implementable. Kniffin also thinks that engagement improves rigor of the scientific process. “The more we talk to the stakeholders, the more they trust the process. They really feel that their interests have been incorporated,” said Bradbury. The eventual results of Bradbury, Genskow and Kniffin’s work stand to inform a whole host of controversial Wisconsin water issues that could be illuminated by scientific models — everything from mining for sand used in hydraulic fracturing (frac sand) to Waukesha’s petition to divert water from Lake Michigan. That’s what makes the work they’re doing here so important — and so challenging.

“Understanding how to present these models is a challenge,” said Bradbury. “Frankly, it’s not something scientists were trained to do. We can do the best science in the world, but if we can’t present it, nobody will.”



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