Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kansas WRAPS

On Tuesday I attended a work group meeting of Kansas WRAPS participant agencies. WRAPS stands for Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies. The goal of WRAPS is to fund novel and innovative projects that will improve watersheds. The idea is to do this by getting local stakeholders to participate. The WRAPS process is 4-stage: Develop, Assess, Plan, and Implement. Each WRAPS group represents a particular watershed, and each year they may request funding to accomplish one of those 4 stages.

The funding requests greatly exceeded the available funds (as expected) so the requests had to be pared down considerably. My understanding is that this work group, consisting of representatives from perhaps a dozen state agencies and other interested parties, was intended to offer guidance and thoughts on how to assign that money.

At the meeting, I was told that the initial criteria for getting WRAPS funds was for projects that were experimental or novel or otherwise a dramatic change from approaches that had been tried previously. Yet many of the project proposals included ideas that have been used extensively elsewhere. For example, one group asked for money to build terraces. Fortunately, the work group, along with the ultimate decision-makers, agreed that this was not what WRAPS is intended to fund.

This meeting was actually a fairly interesting look at how decision-making at this scale gets made. For example, there was considerable talk about the possible need to protect the service providers. A service provider is an agency who actually carries out the projects that the WRAPS group wants to implement. So if WRAPS group A gets the money, then they are going to pay, say, Kansas State University (A service provider) that money in order for one of the professors there to design and organize the project. What the WRAPS work group was discussing was whether or not we ought to consider the fate of those service providers when assigning funds. If a service provider is on the books as accomplishing a particular task for 4 different WRAPS groups, but only 2 of those groups get funded, will that service provider be able to exist on 1/4th of the projects it had planned for?

Personally, I don’t believe that should factor into the WRAPS funding assignments at all, because if it does, then it becomes a powerful incentive for WRAPS groups to use those service providers that the WRAPS work group thinks are worth preserving. In essence, the funding agency would be funneling money to particular groups (and eliminating competition). By ignoring those considerations, the service providers that can’t adapt to the changing conditions will simply fade away.

These were the kind of meta-issues that dominated the meeting. There was surprisingly little discussion of the ‘innovations’ that were being proposed. I guess I was a little surprised by that. Fairness was the big motivating force behind a lot of these discussions. The first idea that always arose was to make everything the same for everyone. Yet fairness can also be achieved by any method that is transparent and logical. Written decisions explaining the justification for a particular project can be just as fair as a universal system that can be applied in advance.

The other major issue that got a lot of conversation at the work group meeting was in regards to a couple of individual WRAPS groups. Apparently this is an issue related to history. Bill Hargrove, the K-State representative, took issue with the lower Ark River watershed having two WRAPS (the City of Wichita has one, and Sedgwick County has one). Almost everyone in the room made a point of lamenting the inability of City and County to work together, ostensibly because every other WRAPS group in a similar situation had managed to unite into a single committee/group. Yet, the map online of WRAPS watersheds shows a lot of overlap. Further, the online FAQ for the project seems to suggest that overlapping WRAPS are perfectly acceptable. The issues facing the City and the County would appear to be separate. Yet it was fully ten minutes before the uproar about “Wichita and Sedgwick” died down. Suggestions were made that any funding to those groups be given on the condition of them merging.

I find this very silly. Bill Hargrove, in particular, used questionable logic by maintaining that “every other WRAPS group” had to collaborate, yet he himself identified other WRAPS groups that had overlapping watersheds. Further, Bill had made a point earlier in the meeting of not taking a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to funding WRAPS groups, because each one should be evaluated differently. Yet his (and others) primary objection to the Wichita-Sedgwick split was that it didn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold that had been used on so many other projects. Personally, I think that such an arbitrary distinction (the city lines) is silly, but I can understand from an organizational standpoint why it makes sense: Within the city limits, Wichita has extremely well-defined lines of communication between stake-holders and the WRAPS group. But translating those interests outside the city is…odd.

The WRAPS program is a good one. The plan is sound, although the implementation and evaluation is tricky (isn’t it always?). I’m looking forward to participating in this project more in the future.

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