2018 Current Issue

Partnering with Nature in Watersheds

Draft 2018 Massachusetts Envirothon Current Issue

The 2018 Massachusetts Envirothon Current Issue invites teams to explore the ways their communities currently participate in the hydrological systems in their watershed, and how they might more sustainably protect, preserve, and make use of the ecosystem services provided by these hydrological processes around them.

Put another way, we will challenge teams to explore the possibilities for water-related sustainable development in their home watersheds.  The World Conservation Strategy (1983) defined “development” as improvement in the quality of life.  The report of the Brundtland Commission (Our Common Future, 1987) defined “sustainable development” as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  Massachusetts pioneered the concept of “watershed management” more than 20 years ago, as a way to engage broad groups of stakeholders to think ecologically and transcend political boundaries and ideologies to find innovative ways to meet environmental and economic development needs.

Can we work with natural hydrological systems in our watersheds to promote sustainable development; that is, to

  • ensure a safe and reliable supply of drinking water?
  • treat and discharge wastewater in ways that protect downstream needs?
  • manage stormwater to minimize impact on water quality and reduce hazards from flooding?
  • produce renewable energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels?
  • provide cultural benefits such as scenic beauty and recreational opportunities?
  • preserve options for the future in the form of resilient, biodiverse ecosystems?
  • promote climate stability and reduce some of the worst effects of climate change?
  • foster a sustainable way of life?


Yes. There are ways that we can “partner” with nature to secure critical ecosystem services while protecting the ecosystems that provide them.  We can even reduce economic costs in the process.

The 21st century is increasingly characterized by a variety of environmental issues in which water resources play a key role:

  • Climate change:  Increasing intensity of the water cycle (including both flood and drought events), and warming water temperatures
  • Urgent need for transition to renewable energy sources like hydropower in order to prevent runaway climate change.
  • Aging 20th century drinking water and wastewater infrastructure coupled with inadequate new planning and increasing costs that frequently fall short of meeting new needs.
  • New, unregulated pollutants (e.g. from pharmaceuticals and personal care products) in our wastewater, with rapidly growing impact on human and environmental health.
  • Increasing intensity of land and water use (including local agriculture and local recreation as well as building)
  • Governance issues:  conflicting priorities for protecting ecological foundations and using ecosystem services for development (e.g. questions about zoning for water resource protection, concerns about the impact of new costs on rate payers and budgets, calls for fairness in access to safe drinking water)
  • Governance issues:  lack of public awareness and skills for civic engagement in sustainability issues and solutions.
  • Improved scientific understanding of ecological and hydrological systems
  • Innovative technology and tools for resource management and conservation

Over decades of scientific and political efforts for environmental protection, we have structured our understanding of – and approaches to – solving water-related issues in a variety of ways.

Each of the following issue frames could be a Current Issue by itself!  While 2018 Mass Envirothon teams will need to be generally familiar with these issue frames and the strategies that characterize them, their main focus should be on the big watershed system picture, and how these management issues are integrated into a comprehensive watershed management approach.


  • Source water quality and quantity protection
  • Wastewater treatment
  • Green infrastructure
  • Forest management
  • Agricultural soil and water conservation
  • Nonpoint source pollution and stormwater management
  • Ecological restoration of waterways
  • Riversmart development – flood protection
  • Small scale hydropower
  • Habitat protection
  • Recreation

2018 Envirothon teams will begin by exploring

  • the boundaries and characteristics of the watersheds where we live (follow the water!)
  • the nature of the watershed hydrological cycle, and how climate change affects it
  • how we participate in the water cycle in our watersheds
  • the  water-related ecosystem services we benefit from
  • the expected effects of climate change (e.g. flooding,  drinking water shortage) on local ecosystems and water-related ecosystem services
  • practical opportunities for sustainable development (ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just improvements in the quality of life) – including resilient infrastructure designed for a changing world, water conservation technologies and practices, prospects for citizen education and engagement, and municipal responsibility.

For their Current Issue presentation, teams will take this general knowledge and address more specific – but still connected – problems in their watershed, such as:

  • What is the potential for green infrastructure to replace gray infrastructure in the provision of safe and reliable drinking water?
  • Can your community’s wastewater be treated and discharged in the watershed in such a way that it can become a reliable source of safe drinking water for and communities and ecosystems downstream?
  • What is the potential for hydropower in your watershed?  Is it economically and environmentally feasible?  What scale(s) make sense?
  • How should we take climate change into consideration when planning for new development and in the revitalization of existing developed areas?
  • How might the public be more positively and productively engaged in watershed management and water resource issues?