By David Robertson

With all the rigorous hand washing everyone is doing these days, the subject of water is top of mind. Yet availability of water is not a given, globally or in the United States. Worldwide, 780 million people lack convenient and reliable access to clean water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the U.S., the Flint, Michigan water contamination crisis shook the nation in 2014 and is yet to be fully resolved. Access to clean water is one of the most pressing sustainability issues worldwide. That’s why students in our Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program examine water challenges, strategies, and solutions as a focus area each year.

Building partnership networks to address a systemic problem 
During the current program interval, we are exploring the theme of “partnering for water.” Specifically, XMNR students are studying the innovative Clean Water Partnership (CWP) in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The CWP is primarily focused on reducing stormwater runoff to keep pollutants out of the rivers and streams that contribute to the area’s drinking water sources. 

Students are engaging with some of the CWP key partners and stakeholders, including Corvias, Storm & Stream Solutions, and sustainability consultants and government leaders working in local communities around the country, to develop an analytical report. Their main focus is on the network level; specifically, how innovative and entrepreneurial leaders are using public–private partnerships to accomplish sustainable development goals. To complete the project, students are using persuasive communication, interdisciplinary teamwork, group decision-making, and project management skills learned earlier in the program. 

Lead faculty this month included Jerry Abrams, Seth Brown, Bruce Hull, and Holly Wise. During the XMNR study weekend, they were joined in the virtual classroom by guest experts Greg Cannito, from Corvias, and Eric Eckl, the founder of Water Words That Work. Corvias is the lead contractor and project manager for implementing the Clean Water Partnership in Prince George’s County. Water Words That Work is a communications and outreach consulting firm with a mission: “To ensure the American people enjoy clean and safe water, outdoors and at home.”

Engaging diverse stakeholders in a common goal
XMNR faculty Dr. Bruce Hull explains the logic of the class meeting and project: “Sustainable development often requires partnering among organizations from different sectors: business, government, and civil society organizations, including faith-based, media, education, and other stakeholder groups. These partnerships have the potential to deliver solutions for sustainability challenges that would be beyond the grasp of individual organizations and sectors working alone. In the case of community-based partnering for green infrastructure, these benefits include reducing the cost and time it takes to install and manage green infrastructure to manage stormwater runoff, as well as improving local employment, community economics, and environmental quality.”

Prior to starting his own sustainability consulting firm, Storm & Stream Solutions, XMNR faculty member Seth Brown worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and refine an alternative project delivery approach for green stormwater infrastructure called “Community-Based Public–Private Partnerships” (CBP3s). Seth has worked with multiple communities who are interested in adopting the CBP3 program approach, including Prince George’s County, to enable low-cost and fast-paced implementation of green stormwater infrastructure. Previously, Seth served as the Stormwater Program and Policy Director at the Water Environment Federation (WEF), where he led their stormwater program by working with WEF members and others in the stormwater community to identify technical needs in the field and develop programming and products to meet these needs. In this capacity, Seth engaged in partnerships with external stakeholder groups on collaborative efforts to advance the stormwater profession.

Like Seth Brown and Storm & Stream Solutions, Greg Cannito’s firm, Corvias, works nationwide on a wide range of public–private partnerships for sustainable infrastructure projects. According to Corvias, “Partnership means working collaboratively to determine the true scope of a relationship and its real potential. We deal in dialogue: listening, understanding, and responding to the challenges you face. And ultimately, helping you reframe your current objectives and uncover new ones—both short- and long-term. Then we dig in and start the journey forward. Together.”

Connecting learning and practice to enrich both 
Seth Brown’s work with Greg Cannito at Corvias to implement a CBP3 program in Prince George’s County, Maryland, was the impetus for this particular XMNR class project. We anticipate that the students’ analysis and reports will inform the next phase of green infrastructure implementation in the county and beyond. In prior years, Seth and Greg have read all the reports, shared them with county officials and other key stakeholders, and used the findings to refine their own understanding of this important and innovative work. The reports students complete this year will build on, update, and extend the impact of prior years.

Each month, XMNR students meet (in-person or virtually) in our state-of-the-art learning labs to engage and interact with their classmates, faculty, and guest experts on cutting edge topics in “leadership for sustainability.” The XMNR program builds leadership capacity at multiple levels, including individual, team, organizational, network, and societal scales.

To learn more about the Clean Water Partnership, take a look at a recent article by XMNR faculty in Solutions, a non-profit online publication devoted to showcasing bold and innovative ideas for solving the world’s integrated ecological, social, and economic problems. Leadership for Sustainability, a forthcoming book co-authored by several XMNR faculty to be published later this year, will offer more in-depth case studies on this and other critical sustainability topics.

David Robertson

David P. Robertson is the Founding Director of the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) programs and Senior Fellow and Associate Director at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech. Dr. Robertson has two decades of experience as a professional educator and sustainability leader, focusing on environmental design, green infrastructure, urban innovation, and climate change. David received an undergraduate degree in Art & Architecture from Montana State University prior to completing a Master of Landscape Architecture and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. David’s international experience includes educational program development and teaching in numerous countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe, including Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, England, France, India, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania, and Turkey. Dr. Robertson’s publications appear in the popular, academic, and professional press, including journals such as Environmental Science & Policy, Environmental Management, Conservation Biology, and Society & Natural Resources.