by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst
Over the last three years, ASWM has conducted studies focused on better understanding various attributes of state wetland programs and both state wetland and stream-related policies and practices. These efforts have manifested themselves in two major reports – State Definitions, Jurisdiction and Mitigation Requirements in State Programs for Ephemeral, Intermittent and Perennial Streams in the United States and Status and Trends Report on State Wetland Programs in the United States. These projects have specifically focused on developing national comparative analyses and have laid the foundation for longitudinal studies of trends over time. Rigor has included building on a foundation in policy theory, implementation of research best practices, and strong attention to creating replicable research designs with consistent measures designed to allow for analysis between and among states. While it’s not critical to understand what goes into creating these national studies, I always find it useful to know the background and inner workings of research I use. This blog provides insights into how we think about our research and what goes into developing our comparative studies. Through these efforts, ASWM strives to create a better understanding of the complex factors and relationships influencing wetland programs, policy implementation, and policy outcomes.
Anchoring Analysis in Public Policy Theory
As we approach studies of wetland and stream policy, we have looked not only at the literature on wetland management, but also on public policy theory. Public policy theory can explain a range of topics, from how decisions are made to who has power and how they exert it. ASWM’s recent studies have been grounded in what is called policy implementation theory.
Policy implementation theory works to explain specific dimensions that influence a policy’s ability to produce results or impacts, including cost, feasibility (e.g. state capacity to implement), and the acceptability of certain policies by relevant stakeholders (both those affected by the policy and those tasked with implementing them). The literature on policy implementation has emerged in many stages with the goal of explaining who has influence on how policy is implemented. Is policy implemented top-down from federal government to state and local government? Is it the street-level bureaucrats that really control what happens? Or is it a hybrid set of ongoing interactions influenced by context? This has led to consideration in our research of both federal and state influences and measures that capture the range of those influences.
Using Qualitative Research to Identify the Breadth of State Wetland Program Characteristics and Development
When conducting our research, we have focused in these recent studies on understanding the breadth of state program capacities to implement wetland and stream regulations at the state level. We have looked at the components of regulation — Who is responsible for different parts of the regulatory process? What controls exist for the state program? What limitations do they have in terms of staffing and funding to enforce the controls they have? This research not only helps identify needs, gaps and opportunities for supporting these programs, but it also contributes to implementation theory. It demonstrates the challenges that the state context provides for the national implementation of Clean Water Act sections §404 Dredge and Fill and §401 Water Quality Certification programs, as well as other Clean Water Act programs that protect wetlands in different ways (e.g. Clean Water Act Section §402).
Taking on the Task of Measuring and Comparing Diversity
As ASWM approached the 2014 Status and Trends/State Summary Project, the organization’s policy analysts already knew they faced tremendous diversity based on previous state summary reports that had been conducted in regular intervals since the 1980s by both ASWM and the Environmental Law Institute. The question became how to measure and compare this diversity in a meaningful way. ASWM relied on a national project workgroup to help determine measures to use building on existing literature, past state summaries and the practical usefulness of the measures for informing state wetland programs and those who support them. In the applied research world, the usefulness of the research is paramount. The workgroup included ASWM analysts, representatives from state wetland programs, US EPA, wetland nonprofits, and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The workgroup decided to build data collection first around the EPA’s ESTP four Core Elements Framework, a set of essential components for state wetland programs to protect state wetlands. Measures for each of these core elements were developed and vetted by the workgroup, building on previous state summaries and key measures in the literature (both gray and peer-reviewed). The workgroup essentially “groundtruthed” the proposed measures. This process not only strengthened the methodological components of the research, it also ensured that the information that was collected would be useful to people making decisions about program development, determining what models and practices could be borrowed from one state for use in another and identifying where capacity building is most needed and feasible at the state, regional or even national level.
Findings of Vast Diversity in State Wetland Programs Begs the Question “Why?”
On April 8th, I presented the findings of ASWM’s Status and Trends Report at the Midwest Political Science Conference in Chicago, Illinois. The paper I presented (still in draft form) discussed our findings in the context of contributions to implementation theory. The conference session discussant repeatedly commented on his surprise at the diversity of state wetland program types and capacities, wondering where these differences came from. Our project focused on measuring the breadth of characteristics and how these compare between and among states. But this does beg the question “Why?” as well as “how does this capacity change over time?”
While ASWM’s research to date does not answer this question, other research on wetland policy and management provides clear insights. Studies show that state wetland programs have emerged from a range of origins. Some states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut had internal regulations in place before the Clean Water Act was enacted. In addition, state regulations can be based on statutes related to navigation, water pollution, protection of wildlife habitat and other provisions of state law. In California, for example, the state regulated its waters long before the Clean Water Act was enacted. Today, the state’s regulatory program must balance requirements in its own Porter Cologne Act with requirements of the Clean Water Act. ASWM’s recent findings are not surprising. Connecting the dots between these studies would be a fascinating future undertaking.
Applied Research: Designed to Inform Decision-Making
To date, the ASWM’s Status and Trends Report has been used by states, regional wetland groups, federal agencies, nonprofits, university researchers and consultants to identify both what is happening in individual states and the status of state wetland programs across the country as a whole. Project products include a national comparative analysis report and fifty state summaries that provide a rich baseline of information about the diversity and range of state wetland programs and practices across the United States. These are being used to further inform other findings and initiatives. One example is the opportunity to provide insights to the findings from the forthcoming 2011 National Wetland Condition Assessment Report. The status of state wetland programs within an NWCA study “ecoregion” has relevance to thinking about how state and federal agencies can help address areas of the country where the largest amount of wetlands are found to be in poor condition.
Next Steps: Analysis over Time and Answering New Questions
In addition to the findings of the Status and Trends study, the study has opened the door to many more questions that remain unanswered. Findings on each core element, climate change work by state wetland programs and integration activities between wetland programs and other state water programs all lead to additional research questions that would likely benefit from deeper analysis. How can quality of implementation be measured for each core element? What level of implementation is adequate? How do states with limited resources implement regulatory requirements? What efforts to transfer a policy or practice from one state to another are more likely to be successful? The report itself includes a final section on recommendations for future research.
In addition, ASWM is interested in looking at how wetland programs change over time. One opportunity under consideration is to pursue support for development of a formal longitudinal dataset (a dataset designed to capture the same specific measures of state wetland programs over time). This would allow for the formal tracking and analysis of trends. To date these trends have only been captured in an informal way and few inferences can be drawn. Working with statisticians, state wetland program staff and a range of stakeholders, ASWM would be positioned to develop robust study designs and employ statistical analysis. Taking into formal consideration what researchers call “confounding variables” and a variety of explanations for findings, specific research questions could be explored, including how the implementation of wetland regulations changes over time, which variables may influence these changes, and what impacts specific initiatives may have on state wetland programs.
We welcome your thoughts regarding research that ASWM should consider to provide theoretical, methodological, or analytical insights to our work, as well as any research questions you think would benefit state and tribal wetland programs. We also encourage you to check out our research reports and products, which are available on our website at www.ASWM.org.