BROWN BAG SEMINAR: Engaging Diverse Communities around Water, Climate, and the Environment

Sea Grant is a federal and state partnership between NOAA and 34 university-based programs in every coastal and Great Lakes state, including Puerto Rico and Guam. For over 50 years, Sea Grant has supported coastal communities through research, extension, and education programming.

This seminar is part of the selection process for a California Sea Grant Extension Specialist that will be hired jointly with the Delta Stewardship Council. Sea Grant Extension Specialists are housed throughout the state and work with coastal communities to identify and collaboratively address pressing issues associated with the use and protection of California’s coastal and marine environments. The position with the Delta Stewardship Council will provide leadership in advancing collaborative partnerships and initiatives and in catalyzing and implementing social science research to inform management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region of California.

The candidate for this seminar is Dr. Joshua Cousins, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 2016 where he studied water resources and stormwater governance in Chicago and Los Angeles. He went on to complete an ecology, evolution, ecosystems, and society postdoc at Dartmouth College in 2018. Since he has been an assistant professor at the college of environmental science and forestry and the state university of New York. His research lies at the nexus of science, technology, and society to shape environmental policy and decision making, including impacts to climate change on natural resource management. His seminar today is titled, Engaging Diverse Communities around Water, Climate, and the Environment.

Dr. Joshua Cousins began by saying the Delta is a very interesting and vital landscape in many different ways …

It’s an energy landscape with wind farms, the site of natural gas fields, and its crisscrossed by electrical transmission lines.

It’s a diverse cultural landscape that includes Native American history of the region, the Japanese and Chinese immigrants whose labor is literally embedded in the landscape of the Delta, and the countless others who have come to work in the agricultural fields and shape the diverse cultural ecosystem of the Bay-Delta region.

It’s an agricultural landscape with over 500,000 acres of agriculture in the region.

It’s an incredibly interconnected landscape that connects urban and rural through commodity exchanges and water diversions, but it’s also a place in the middle of California that connects the mountains to the sea and north to south through the flow of water.

It’s a recreational landscape with kayakers, anglers, windsurfers, cyclists, and others.

It’s a hydrological landscape with the watershed extending from the Cascade Range in the north all the way down to the Tehachapi Mountains in the south, capturing nearly half the surface water that falls in California.

It’s a biodiversity hotspot with an incredibly rich number of birds, fish, and native species, many of which are increasingly at risk.

And finally, it’s a highly engineered landscape with dikes, levees, canals, and pumps forming an infrastructural landscape that not only structures Delta life but it also connects Northern California to Southern California through the flow and diversion of water.

It’s a complex social-ecological space with social processes and ecological processes and vice versa,” said Dr. Cousins. “This is a familiar framework for understanding the feedback loops in complex adaptive systems, but I also want to add that the Delta is highly shaped by technological processes as well that influence these social-ecological processes. I hope through my training and experience, I can bring a set of social science skills to inform decision making in the Delta and adaptive management practices.”

Dr. Cousins noted that he was born and raised in Wyoming, a place highly shaped by western water politics and the histories of logging, mining, ranching, and tourism which generated early interest in resource questions. He has a B.A. in Geography from the University of Colorado, an M.S. in geography from Portland State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and the School of Natural Resources, School for the Environment and Sustainability. He then became a post-doc at Dartmouth College, their Ecology, Evolution, Environment, and Society Program.

I approach research questions and my teaching career with this broad interdisciplinary training in geography, environmental studies, broadly defined,” he said. “Within that realm, I have a few areas of foci that I address. I draw from political ecology to look at the relationship between nature and society, and to think about the differential power relationships that produce social-ecological outcomes. I draw from community planning and sustainability to think about issues of the commons and confront economic and environmental injustice through planning. I also draw from environmental governance literature to think about the broad set of institutions and rules and decision making structures that influence environmental actions and outcomes. I also draw from science and technology studies to explore the social and cultural aspects of scientific knowledge and technological change and the impacts of technocratic governance on issues of equity. And I draw from literature in resource geography to think about and understand resource flows and the effect on environment and society, as well as how resource flows such as water may vary spatially and temporally and have consequences for human and ecological well-being.”

In his research, he has used many different methods, including interviews, persistent observation, spatial network analysis, and the Q methodology in surveys and focus groups. Some of the themes he has explored include the relationship between communities and natural resources and understanding the flow of resources and how that affects urban and rural communities, and the role of expertise in communicating values and shaping social-ecological relationships, and how scientific ideas get applied, adapted and translated in environmental governance and decision making.


This example was an interesting paradox of stormwater and the drought in California, Dr. Cousins said. For many urban designers, planners, and engineers, the problem brought by the drought was that the city needed to retain the rain somehow and can no longer afford to send it in a pipe or channel out to the ocean. They wanted to stop the ‘waste’ and the efficient use of stormwater was just one strategy that many were advocating as a means to meet the dual water supply and water quality challenges in Los Angeles. These efforts have generated a range of vested interests and actors in the future of stormwater management, each with their own distinct preferences and perspectives in terms of how to resolve that problem.

Stormwater is a complicated governance problem with actors at multiple levels and scales of governance with different roles and functions which sometimes do or do not overlap. There are agencies and stakeholders at the national, state, regional, city, and municipality levels on down to the land parcel. At the national level, there’s the US EPA and the Clean Water Act regulations. There are a host of regulatory agencies at the state level, most notably the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Transportation, which he noted that roads often occupy the most space within the public right of way and are important when talking about stormwater. At the regional level, there are multiagency working groups, flood control districts, people integrated regional planning efforts, and watershed management groups.

There may be a suite of different city agencies and departments, such as planning, sanitation departments, departments of water, those working to maintain legal codes, fund and maintain the infrastructure, and so on. There are might be a range of NGOs working at the neighborhood and community level. There is also action be taken at the landowner level such as cash for grass initiatives or bioswales.

There are a lot of different ways with people at all types of levels of decision making are involved with the way stormwater flows across the urban landscape,” Dr. Cousins said. “What I see here is also how something very simple – rain – slowly emerges as something a lot more complicated as you see the range of vested interests within how to manage it and direct that flow of water.”

All those different agencies, organizations, and stakeholders have their own preferences as to what approach or strategy should be used to sustainably manage stormwater. There could be a mitigation banking scheme developed which would buy and sell credits to achieve water quality goals. There could be a focus on gray infrastructures such as sewers, dams, and catchment basins; a common refrain among water suppliers was ‘you need big to capture big,’ he noted. It might be using more distributed and decentralized approaches, such as bioretention ponds, green roofs, and other green infrastructure. Or maybe there should be an integrated approach, so thinking about the coordination and management of water, land, and related resources to advance the economic and social welfare along with integrity of ecosystems using things like city ordinances and rebates and other ways to incentivize citizen participation.

For the research, there were two questions:

1. Academic Question: How do competing perspectives (or values) and institutional structures relate to one another and influence stormwater governance?

2. Practical and Applied Question: How do you bring together diverse constituencies and reconcile their diverging values?

Dr. Cousins used the Q-methodology in this research a method to investigate the perspectives of participants who represent different stances on an issue by having them rank and sort a series of statements. The Q-method was developed by psychologist William Stephenson in 1935.

It’s typically defined as a quantitative technique for listening, evaluating, and comparing human subjectivity, but it’s much more of a mixed-method approach,” he said. “There are a few things that are important about the method. The first is that it’s participatory; this means that participants actively define and give meaning to the categories in the study themselves, rather than working from a predefined category established by the researcher. So it was designed as a way to try and remove some of the bias from the researcher within the research design. The second is that it’s iterative, and by iterative, I mean it proceeds through many different phases which include the participants in multiple phases of the design.”

Dr. Cousins said he sees the Q-method as applicable for addressing a number of questions in the Delta. The first is value questions to capture the values and perspectives of the Delta as an evolving place. The second is conduct questions to capture the management, policy or behavioral perspectives of stakeholders on how to sustainably and equitably manage the Delta.

All of these blank faces that you see on the slide might have an opinion or viewpoint or perspective about an issue,” he said. “The Q-method looks at all these shared viewpoints across the group, so it’s a way to understand the variety of shared viewpoints about an issue or a topic.”

The Q-method is used in a variety of decision making contexts at the US Forest Service, USDA, EPA, and in collaborations between Colorado State University and the Colorado Public Policy Institute around water issues in Colorado. It’s also an interdisciplinary method frequently used in ecological economics as well as by anthropologists, local scientists, urban planners, and geographers.

Participants in the stormwater study included the LA County Flood Control District, LA Waterkeeper, Southern California Water Committee, the EPA, TreePeople, LA DWP, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of LA River, and others.

The project did bring together a diverse range of actors that each bring their own distinct perspective and set of values in how to property address stormwater,” he said. “All these organizations might have an opinion, viewpoint, or perspective about how to manage stormwater. The Q-method allows one to order all the shared viewpoints across this broad group of actors, not only institutionally but also the individuals embedded within these institutions. It’s a way to understand the variety of shared viewpoints on how to address the problem like stormwater.”

For the survey, participants were presented with a series of statements, to which they can decide to disagree, agree, or be neutral. Those statements usually reflect something that someone might have said in an interview or within the survey; the statement should reflect subjectivity to some extent, Dr. Cousins said. Participants are asked to order the series of statements on the chart, and they continue to fill out the entire chart until it’s full. They can reorder the statements however they like, and after all the participants have done this, the sorts are subject to a factor analysis that works by mathematically creating new variables or factors that explain the variation among the many variables.

The analysis revealed four major perspectives:

Market skeptic: The distinguishing position here was the rejection of market-oriented approaches over improved rulemaking.  This perspective is that stormwater or water more generally should not be guided by market, economic, or financial principles. Academics, NGO leaders, and some from flood control districts aligned with this perspective.

Managerial perspective: The distinguishing perception in this group was that stormwater management needs to be altered to maximize economic gain and stormwater capture. This perspective emphasizes quantity and so preferences were towards volumetric solutions or how many acre-feet is captured and stored. The people who identified with this perspective were mostly water suppliers or people who had a background working with water supply and water utilities.

Market-oriented perspective: The distinguishing perspective here was about establishing linkages between science, technology, and the market to foster social change and direct decision making.  This perspective centered on developing economic instruments to put a value on stormwater in order to manage it as a resource. Those from the Department of Water and Power, US EPA, and Natural Resources Defense Council aligned with this perspective.

Regulatory perspective: This perspective prefers establishing regulations and administrative relationships to meet requirements in water quality permits. They tend to feel that stormwater problems are a product of too few regulations and approaches to alter land use. Those aligning with this perspective were from LA City Planning, US Bureau of Reclamation, LA City Bureau of Sanitation, and the State Water Resources Control Board.

What is valuable about the Q Method is that it allows you to see and understand different points of agreement and disagreement, Dr. Cousins said. “The first major point of agreement was around holistic, hybrid, and integrated approaches, but the process should be science and data-driven. It’s really about thinking about the ways that science-based recommendations are needed to be integrated to further a gray infrastructure type approach, but integration is only as good as all of its components, so it’s really about better science at all levels of management.”

Then there was agreement around green infrastructure and multi-benefit approaches. “One point I want to make here is that projects that offer multiple benefits are desirable, but often other benefits such as may be water quality, habitat restoration, or flood control are not always typically quantified by a lot of water supply agencies who might be able to leverage some power in this situation, so they often orient their vision towards approaches that would organize stormwater as a supply, but the fact that they see a lot of distributed projects as desirable and scalable is a nice common ground for thinking about ways to bring actors together within this view, so long as it meets a desired volume of water.”

There were a few sources of disagreement as well, one of those being around infrastructural preferences, such as aesthetics and supply versus quality, as well as conflicts between infrastructure designed to capture and remediate stormwater on-site, or if infrastructure at an off-site location should be allowed as compensation.

Not surprisingly, the managerial perspective preferred the large centralized projects for handling and capturing stormwater,” said Dr. Cousins. “Many of the other groups tended to preferred the more decentralized approaches.”

An important point of contention between social perspectives was rooted in the way the managerial perspective relied on cost-benefit analysis and certain types of metrics that would supplement and advocate for the cost-effectiveness of increasing supply, but other things like water quality benefits weren’t always quantified in some of the metrics which tended to conflict with some of the other actors concerned with the management of stormwater within the city, he said.

The other was about markets and economics mechanisms. Incentives at the household were generally viewed as positive, but market approaches at larger scales were often viewed a little less favorably. For example, some were skeptical towards approaches that might produce outcomes for actors to disproportionally profit, and conversations about the ownership of the water and if groundwater recharge is being incentivized, what happens to those water rights.

Dr. Cousins then gave his takeaways. “The study allowed participants to see and understand broader trends in stormwater governance and see and discuss their converging and diverging perspectives. New methods and strategies for governing stormwater are also the result of changing perceptions, so there’s an emerging conversation around managing stormwater more as a resource rather than a water quality nuisance or a hazard. But a lot of decision-making power still remains uneven, so a lot of what was within the qualitative data is that in some ways there’s only been a partial achievement of some of the broader environmental justice goals; the issue was usually explained as stemming from governance policies that call for more public participation but may shield some of the decision-makers from some of that substantive engagement with the content of participation.”

Dr. Cousins sees this translating to the Delta in a number of ways, noting that it advanced a lot of different collaborative partnerships by engaging a lot of diverse constituencies within the research process. “I really focused on this example because I see it as a method to reveal and understand the shifting values of the evolving Delta that considers both the people and the environment. It’s a method to think about values or what people perceive as more valuable so it’s a useful method for thinking about a lot of the concerns that are emerging within the Delta and the social science strategy for the Delta.”


This example draws from Dr. Cousins teaching experience with the Climate Smart Communities program that brought diverse groups together through teaching and a collaborative effort with New York State’s College for Environmental Science and Forestry, the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board, the village of Homer, and the village of Baldwinsville that has been developed over the past several years.

Climate Smart Communities is a New York State program that helps local governments set up greenhouse gas reduction programs and initiate climate change adaptation and mitigation measures by offering free technical assistance, grants, and rebates. It works as a certification program that supports local governments in building sustainable climate action programs in a step by step manner.

The slide lists all the steps needed to reach the highest level of certification in the program, such as decreasing energy use, implementing climate smart land use programs, and informing and inspiring the public.

For the village of Homer, the project was focused on inventorying emissions, performing government operations greenhouse gas inventories, and developing government operations climate action plans and community climate action plans. For the village of Baldwinsville, the project focused on refining the government operations and drafting a climate change action plan.

He and his students along with the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board conducted analyses for the community greenhouse gas inventories.  A principle of his teaching is learning by doing hands-on and experiential training. With the village of Homer, it also included meetings with the mayor, multiple meetings of the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board, as well as even working with some high school green teams on some of the goals and initiatives that the village of Homer has.

These efforts are really about outreach, extension, and feedback between myself and my students, the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board, and the municipalities that they work with,” Dr. Cousins said. “We present these findings every year, this year on Zoom. … I see this form of teaching and outreach as a triad of collaboration providing needs, expertise, and training iteration and ongoing conversations … so it addresses a real-world planning problem or planning priority that helps municipalities meet some type of goal that they are trying to achieve.”

This form of teaching is an investment in the development of social scientists and it’s a way of building people capacity, connecting them to their communities and maintaining and growing that over time, which is an important component to the social science strategy, he said.

This form of education and outreach is also a form of internal-external capacity building, so it’s about building the capacity of students and others internal in the organization that they work with, but also building external relationships that can help facilitate some of this ongoing learning, discussion, collaboration, and project building,” Dr. Cousins said.

It’s also a form of organizational learning that helps translate new information or data to shared knowledge for municipal planning which can help improve management decisions, he said. “The point is that ongoing collaborations work as mechanisms to help train, teach, and build capacity through a lot of different applied projects that I think have a lot of applicability to working within this position and the extension that is part of it.”


Dr. Cousins’ social science vision combines co-production with equity, justice, and intersectionality.  Co-production as it is defined within the fields of climate and development is an iterative process that emphasizes the need to build internal and external networks to sustain ongoing flows of information and participation between science and decision-makers. It’s about the joint formulation of research questions and knowledge gaps, and creating usable science that creates knowledge that meets the needs of the constituents, he said.

With respect to equity, justice, and intersectionality, it’s partly thinking about ways to integrate justice in the planning, design, and research processes, as well as broadening participation, but it’s also about researching how environmental actions and outcomes are uneven and shape the socio-spatial distribution of risks and vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity and how decisions might have gender, race, class, and spatial dimensions in terms of their impact, he said. He’s also interested in connecting to citizen science and community empowerment through social science research.

In the Delta, environmental challenges are also social challenges, he said, and it takes a socio-ecological systems perspective to truly understand these interactions and how this shapes the environmental governance and decision making structures we have or might make, Dr. Cousins said, noting that those decisions might be uneven in terms of their impact on environmental justice and equity as well as the natural environment.

Understanding these processes can help in a variety of ways and one way is through the creation and monitoring of indicators, such as those identified in the social science strategy.  Monitoring and reporting of these social and ecological indicators to inform adaptive management and developing some decision support tools is important, as is building external capacity, such as synthesis centers and research coordination networks, as well as a mentoring plan, outreach and engagement, and project-based learning.

I prefer my work to be collaborative and interdisciplinary and I seek to try and engage in a lot of different constituencies within the process and tried to create iterative designs,” said Dr. Cousins. “I try to have an eye towards environmental justice issues within my teaching and research. A lot of it is about support, not only the research and teaching being supportive of meeting constituents needs, but also being supportive of one another in the ways we might develop our research questions and develop the internal-external capacities we might need to meet some of the goals that we might have within the Delta.”


Question: How do you approach the challenge of trying to develop indicators which actually reflect changes based on the decisions made?

Dr. Cousins:There are a lot of different ways to think about the indicators that you might want, but I think the indicators that are chosen have to reflect a certain set of values of the communities that might be impacted by social and environmental change. It’s also thinking about indicators of ecological sustainability that might also change over time. But I think the development of indicators is more of a ground-up approach that reflects the specificities of place in a local context and the needs of the people within the community.”

Question: I appreciated your explanation of the Q method. It seems like a great way to identify areas of convergence among a diverse group of stakeholders. I’m curious about situations where there may be minority opinions or areas where there is divergence where those minority opinions might represent very powerful interests. Are there best practices or ways that you can think of for communicating the Q Method results to kind of iron out that political geography that’s uneven?

Dr. Cousins:In Q, you’re trying not to get too many redundant viewpoints. What I would say is interesting and useful about the method and how it might differ from maybe a standard qualitative analysis is you’re trying to understand someone’s subjectivity and it puts everyone somewhat on an equal ground in terms of understanding how their particular subjectivity might relate to one another. Just as an example, one thing that I felt was interesting in the LA example is there are people who aligned within the same social vision or social perspective that had litigation against one another. What that brought to light in some of the follow-up interviews was the conflict was much more about the process; it wasn’t about the ultimate goal, but it was about how something should be done. So I think that has some salience here for thinking about how even something like this method through follow up workshops or focus groups can help operate as a method to improve the decision-making process.

Question: This question is about the co-production of knowledge. Is there anything more you can add about this? Who would you try to engage in the co-production of knowledge and what issues in the Delta would be most effective with this approach? Are there any areas where coproduction would really be effective or really challenging?

Dr. Cousins:With co-production, some of it is about where you decide to scope your boundaries of the study. Personally I think there’s a lot of potential through this method to do a lot of community-based work, so thinking of maybe smaller communities and municipalities in somewhat of a smaller scale in many ways and thinking of how, the question comes really from the beginning of what community are you working with, and how can you work with that community to develop a research question with that community. So I see it, maybe it’s a community being impacted by changes, sea level rise, some type of climate change vulnerability type of risk, and working with the community to understand what their options might be, what type of questions they might want to work with and trying to give the capacities and capabilities to work with that community to resolve and answer that question.”


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