By Bruce Hull

The Clean Water Partnership (CWP) is one of the most innovative green infrastructure programs in the country. Operating in Prince George’s County, Maryland, it saves millions of taxpayer dollars, increases the amount of water treated and infrastructure installed, provides local jobs, engages community members, and reimagines how county governments work with private business.

The partners came into the classroom of Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program, shared how the partnership works, and asked students for recommendations. Consultancy-like teams of students used their leadership toolbox to examine partnership mechanics and green infrastructure delivery. As a part of their coursework where they learn advanced leadership skills, such as building partnerships and cross-sector collaborations, the students had an opportunity to meet, analyze, and make recommendations about a large-scale, ongoing, real-world green infrastructure project.

Here are just a few of the recommendations XMNR students offered after weeks of thorough research and analysis of the partnership:

1. Connecting through communication
“Focusing on the human aspect of storytelling would further cement CWP’s role in the community, and continue building trust among residents,” suggests one team’s report. “This is especially important as the partnership works toward its third phase, that is primarily private property projects. The CWP website currently has a map that could be made into a story map that shares insights and highlights about how the project has transformed the community.”

2. Eliminating food deserts 
“ ‘Edible’ green infrastructure has [...] advantages of reducing stormwater runoff [...] but provides additional value by producing native, locally-grown foods to help mitigate food supply issues, including ‘food deserts,’ where finding fresh, healthy, and affordable food in low-income communities is difficult,” posits another team’s report. “Food deserts, in addition to climate change and our current pandemic, illustrate the need to look at creative ways of growing food that help alleviate fluctuations in our food supply, ease the pressures of processing and shipping food, and make fresh, healthy food available to all communities.”

3. Building climate-resilient communities
“Many of the projects the Clean Water Partnership has implemented directly influence Prince George’s County’s ability to handle the extreme weather brought on by a changing climate,” points out another student report. “Green infrastructure protects communities from flooding and reduces the urban heat island effect. We recommend that the CWP embrace the correlation between green infrastructure, water quality, and climate change, to maximize the impact and scope of their work. In addition to aligning with county emission reduction goals, crafting a narrative around community resilience and adaptation could bring in additional stakeholders who are affected and concerned about increasing temperatures or the impacts of extreme weather events. While climate change is often a divisive topic, many private entities are begging to see the impacts such a threat imposes on their business ventures.”

4. Partnering with schools
“Utilizing the geographic space schools occupy and communities within to establish green infrastructure can help restore the quality of waterways,” finds one team of students. “In a small survey of different principals, teachers, and a superintendent, not one in the school system hierarchy was against such a program. The concerns for those in charge were mostly funding and liability. In order to increase the likelihood of a partnership, a liaison between the company and the school is necessary. [...] School principals look for unique programs that are feasible and can bring a level of recognition to the school and create pride in parents and the community.”

5. Searching for blind spots
“We recommend that attention be paid to the groups who may not be served, or may not perceive themselves as being served, by the CWP,” emphasizes another team. “Every partnership is a mitigation. Not every party involved gets everything they want when living and working in community. Our research did not reveal any adverse effects or any expressed opinions that contradicted the messaging put out by the partnership, but there may be voices with fewer available resources that are unable to tell their tale. We recommend that the CWP Oversight Board, or another third party, make affirmative efforts to seek out and engage with populations who may be underserved by the partnership. In this way, the CWP can serve the largest number possible and ensure a fair and equitable application of the benefits that the CWP has to offer. This will also serve as a layer of protection for PGC in order to show due diligence as the project grows and is more difficult to oversee effectively.”

The breadth and depth of these recommendations illustrates how MNR students learn by doing, and the capabilities they develop during their studies. Stay tuned for more posts from our (currently virtual) classrooms, and visit our site for more information about the XMNR program. CWP is the subject of a recent post by the XMNR Program Director, Dr. David Robertson.

Bruce Hull headshot

Bruce Hull is a Senior Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington, and a professor at VT’s College of Natural Resources and Environment in Blacksburg. He writes and teaches about leadership for sustainable development and how to have influence in the cross-sector space where government, business, and civil society intersect. He advises organizations, communities, and professionals responding to the Anthropocene. He has authored and edited numerous publications, including two books, Infinite Nature and Restoring Nature. His most recent book, Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems, is published by Island Press this summer and slated to be released in the fall. The book can also be found on Amazon and Goodreads, where it’s available for preorder.