Lori Urso is the executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.

Tuesday, 19 Feb 2002

HOPE VALLEY, R.I.

My week begins, as my last one ended, with lingering decisions: Decisions about our board and about fund-raising; about important things (like a half-million dollar habitat restoration project) and about incidental things (like where to store an office chair in need of repair). Any decision, no matter how small, takes time — time to make it, and time to act on it. (And, if it was the wrong decision, time to fix it.)

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I’m Lori Urso, and I have been executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association for four years, not consecutively. I was brought on in 1992 to bring the agency to a more professional level of operation, and asked back again in 2000 to do basically the same thing. Is it working? As far as we can tell, we’re making it happen. But like any nonprofit organization, we face the constant uphill climb of chasing soft money for sustainability.

No matter how professional we think we’ve become, the infrastructure of the agency remains a work in progress. In our 19th year of operation (WPWA turns 20 in July of 2003), we are still trying to figure out how to create the perfect board of trustees by optimizing the roles of board members, the level of their participation, and the support they can provide to staff on matters of membership, programs, finance, stewardship, and similar areas. At our last meeting, we worked out a committee structure, which was adopted unanimously by those present. Now comes implementation. Do I have my doubts? Sure. Will there be disappointment? Maybe. Someone’s expectations will not be met, and we may lose some good board members simply because they don’t have enough time to meet our goals. But we also have a chance at a dynamic and active board, which we would not have without a plan such as this.

We also find that, after almost two decades of hard work, we are now being identified by state and federal agencies as a source of contractual services, and that we are in a position to spearhead and coordinate projects in our watershed. We are able to do this because the Rhode Island Rivers Council awarded us the status of Watershed Council in 1999, which gives us legal standing as an advocate for our watershed.

At the board meeting I mentioned above, we discussed some of the state and federal proposals on the table. One was a funding proposal for a spring and summer study of native brooktrout in upper watershed streams, for which we have approximately $5,000 cash budget and equipment on loan to us from the EPA; the other was an inquiry by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration regarding our interest in coordinating a $500,000 river restoration project. As (il)logic would dictate, doubts were raised as to our ability to pull off the brooktrout study (the far smaller of the two proposals), followed by questions of why we would wait even for a second to take on the restoration project, a huge multi-year project of enormous proportions and consequence. Why, when the stakes are far higher, does our appetite for risk increase as well?

I think what drives this conflict is that same quest for sustainability I mentioned at the beginning of this entry. Sustainability is the one goal that tends to elude most grassroots nonprofits, which often struggle year after year to meet their budgets, get new members, and identify fresh sources of funding. When the purse is large, there are few arguments against taking the plunge (however awesome the magnitude of the project), because it may represent a chance at sustainability. Given that chance, we’re going for it.

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And now that that decision has been made, let me see about this broken chair.

Wednesday, 20 Feb 2002

HOPE VALLEY, R.I.

Conflict takes the stage today, played out against the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. RIDEM frequently sets itself up to bear the brunt of people’s angst — even that of its own employees. Nonetheless, I’ve worked with many competent people there and had generally positive experiences. Today, however, an interesting scenario presented itself.

About 10 days ago, RIDEM informed us about a breach that had occurred in one of the wastewater treatment lagoons at a textile-dyeing plant in the watershed — one of the many historic industries built along the river in the early 1900s to utilize hydropower. When the breach occurred, approximately 1.5 million gallons of purple wastewater were released onto the riverbank, causing erosion of the bank and depositing tainted sediments and wastewater into the river.

After a few days of seeing nothing in the local papers about the release, which occurred in a stretch of river designated for “open space and recreation” by the state, and where recreational fishing is heavily promoted, I asked a reporter what I thought was an obvious question: “Why hasn’t your paper run a story on the wastewater lagoon breach on the river?” To my surprise, the reporter knew nothing about it. RIDEM had not released any information.

Last Friday, the local paper I approached did run a story, which was then picked up by the statewide journal. Their reporter contacted me today. Among my comments, I mentioned that I was concerned that the state had not immediately informed the public about the incident, particularly given its location in a popular fishing area.

Sure enough, just moments later, I got a call from the state’s watersheds coordinator, who is a good friend and colleague in the local environmental community. He said he’d heard I was causing trouble again — that I’d criticized “his agency” for not informing “my organization” about the spill. In the game of telephone that is journalism, some statements can’t help but get twisted. I told him, “Yes, I did criticize your agency, but not for failing to inform WPWA” — which they had indeed done — “but for failing to inform the public.” I then asked him, “Are you okay with my going on the record with that?” He was. Then we talked about 10 other things and it was over.

We’ll see how the story fares when passed through the 300-person grapevine at RIDEM. Maybe I’ll sour some relations — or maybe, by showing that we enjoy our good relations with the state agency but have a much greater obligation to the public and our members, we’ll come out stronger and more respected in the end. WPWA is the voice of the watershed. If we don’t speak up when things have gone wrong, we now have cause to ask, who will?

Thursday, 21 Feb 2002

HOPE VALLEY, R.I.

Well, today is “the day after,” and here I am dealing with all the backlash from yesterday’s news release. As it turns out, the story focused on WPWA’s criticism of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for not informing the public about a wastewater spill in a popular recreation area.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s entry, here’s the quick recap: When WPWA was initially informed by RIDEM about the wastewater release, the message included a line alerting us to the possibility of calls from the media. From this I understood that RIDEM had made, or would be making, a statement to the press, which would likely lead to inquiries directed to WPWA.

Several days later, when I still hadn’t seen any mention of the incident in the local newspapers, I contacted one paper to complain about the apparent lack of interest in the story. Turns out the paper never got a statement from RIDEM — so now I’m a whistleblower. In a conversation with a second reporter who picked up the story, I made a comment about being surprised that RIDEM would not release this information, particularly since the spill occurred in an area where the department actively promotes fishing.

Next day’s story: “Dye spill into Wood River raises questions, criticisms.” The spill itself is no longer the main theme here, but rather one agency criticizing another.

But that’s okay. I think it’s perfectly fair, and quite healthy, to disagree with RIDEM publicly, if you’re a watershed organization with a constituency of members and non-members counting on you to be “the voice of the resource.” And that goes double when the criticism stems from an incident that is part of a recurring situation at a plant with a history of violations.

Today, three different homeowners contacted WPWA to voice their personal concerns about the company responsible for the wastewater release. They talked about odor problems dating back over 20 years, and an identical situation to the present one involving a breach in the wall of one of the company’s other lagoons. These people certainly want to be informed about violations for which this company is responsible. And they are pleased with the attention we have brought to the incident. For the grassroots model to work effectively, our masters have to be our members and the general public.

Now comes the call for “better communication” between RIDEM and the watershed association to alleviate these conflicts in the future. Better communication is a good thing, I agree. But it’s not a cure for disagreement, which, from time to time, can be healthy and productive — not to mention inevitable.

Friday, 22 Feb 2002

HOPE VALLEY, R.I.

The week is ending relatively quietly, as it began. Amazing the way turmoil managed to work its way into the middle. Happily, even the turmoil worked out well for WPWA. This afternoon a staff member of RIDEM with whom I have worked for several years called to ask me to look into a potential land acquisition. I felt compelled to apologize for the negative press. He hadn’t even read the paper. (Phew!) So it’s back to business as usual.

Today a group of student interns from nearby Brown University began their semester-long investigation of the history of aquatic herbicide use in watershed ponds. This is the type of pesky project that mildly annoys the state, but brings long-overdue and much-needed information to the fore.

This afternoon, I’ll be joining a member of our board of trustees — a retired scientist — for a canoe trip to the source of the spill I wrote about this week, where we’ll take sediment samples for analysis. (I hope the water’s not too cold!) Now that we’ve opened the can of worms, we have an obligation to our members and the general public to follow through with some hard facts on the impact of the spill. I hope our results are not what I’m expecting them to be, which is heavy on the heavy metals.

Meanwhile, Denise, our program director, is reveling in her successful presentation at a water quantity workshop yesterday, where she shared her stream-monitoring program results with a group of environmental professionals studying water quantity issues. She was also able to share some of the positive and negative aspects of such a program. The main negative aspect is the challenge of keeping volunteer monitoring programs afloat.

Our high school interns will be showing up this afternoon, too. Another weekly decision: What can we have the girls do today? Sometimes we’re ultra-prepared with a worthwhile and interesting endeavor for them. Other times, it’s all we can do to simply remember that they are coming.

On Monday, I’ll begin the week with more decisions. In the morning, it’ll be decisions about data-logging equipment that we plan to acquire for our strategic water monitoring program — decisions about what brands, features, and prices best meet our needs. Later, I’ll have to make a decision about managing a fishway construction project at one of the watershed’s largest dams. And throughout the week, I’ll be faced with decisions about how to prioritize the numerous items in need of my attention — ah, the life of a multitasker.

Hardly perfect, never boring, mostly fun: That’s my work in a nutshell. Luckily, right now I’m in for a bit of fun: Time to saddle up that canoe for today’s ride. Hold on to your hats!