Saco River Watershed Collaborative Assessment

Client Organization: 
Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve
Project Location : 
Wells, Maine, USA
Secondary Client Organization: 
NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve System
Summary of Project Idea: 

The Saco River watershed in Maine and New Hampshire provides myriad ecosystem services ranging from pristine river kayaking and recreational fishing, to drinking water for over a quarter million people. Concerns over increasing stress to the ecosystem, rooted in development pressures, drought conditions, and fragmented planning activities, have prompted discussion among community and agency leaders about the need for a watershed-scale collaborative group that could better coordinate planning and management. The proposed masters project will conduct the background research necessary to inform the establishment of a multi-stakeholder collaborative association in the Saco River watershed.

Research Goals and Objectives

Identify and characterize the Stewardship Network of the Saco watershed including the scope and scale of each group’s work to reveal shared narratives and goals as well as potential roots of conflict that will have to be recognized to foster collaboration.

Apply an ecosystem services framework to the assessment to reveal the diverse and sometimes conflicting benefits valued by groups who also share a commitment to place and to sustaining attributes of the places they care about. Knowledge gained would be used to reveal the nature of trade-offs in ways that makes them explicit, yet encourages systems thinking and dialogue.

Determine the perspectives of the diverse array of stakeholders who comprise the Stewardship Network to better understand and address the dimension of conflicts, shared mental models that support collaborative processes, and sources of innovation that can be spread throughout the network.

Develop recommendations for use by the Saco Watershed Collaborative that will be used to guide the development of the partnership.

Specific Activities

This project has 3 distinct activities:

  1. The project team will conduct a “situation assessment.” This assessment process will entail in-person and phone interviews with representatives of the communities, state and federal agencies, NGOs, and businesses in the watershed to better understand their interests and perspectives concerning the watershed and their motivations for potentially being engaged in a more formalized Collaborative Watershed Association. 
  2. The project team will compare and contrast the issues and stakeholders in the Saco River Watershed with those in the Salmon Falls Watershed (located immediately to the south) to assess transferable lessons. The genesis of the idea to consider a Saco River Watershed Collaborative was inspired by the work of the Salmon Falls Watershed Collaborative established in 2010 near the coastal border of Maine and New Hampshire. (  This group has worked with its watershed stakeholders to develop a watershed action plan to accomplish regionally shared goals for source water protection, habitat conservation, restoration, and pollution mitigation. (
  3. Given the understanding of the varied interests, goals and objectives of Saco River Watershed stakeholders, as assessed through interviews, the project team will draw examples and lessons from other comparable watershed associations in New England (and elsewhere as appropriate) to identify specific recommendations (both procedural and organizational) for moving forward with a plan to establish a Saco River Watershed Association.

An advisory team of representative stakeholders from the Saco River watershed will be available for periodic check-ins by the project team to provide feedback on the research and guidance on the recommendations for the final report.

Project Context

The Saco River flows from its headwaters in the White Mountain National Forest of northeastern New Hampshire to its mouth in southwestern Maine. It drains a largely rural area encompassing 1,703 square miles of forest and farmlands, traveling 136 miles before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Saco Bay. It supplies drinking water to roughly 250,000 people in 35 towns, and historically provided transportation and water power that encouraged development of several cities and towns in the watershed. It provides opportunities for both freshwater and saltwater fishing, canoeing and kayaking, and contains both power and flood control dams. A small number of Atlantic salmon, listed under the Endangered Species Act, spawn in the river.  Concerns about water quality, quantity and distribution, particularly in drought years, have sparked conflict among groups in the watershed.

There are many issues that have elevated the prominence of the Saco River Watershed and that are prompting consideration of a multi-stakeholder watershed-scale collaborative organization. The Saco River provides myriad ecosystem services valued by residents and visitors to the watershed. As one individual describes, “If ever there existed a river that offers something for everyone, it is the Saco River.” It constitutes a priority ecosystem of concern for The Nature Conservancy, which notes: “Both its biological resources and economic uses make the Saco watershed a conservation priority.”

The Poland Springs Water Company is located in the watershed. “From humble beginnings as a spa in Maine to becoming the most popular bottled water brand in the Northeast,” Poland Springs has operated in the region since 1845. It has three bottling plants that employ 800 people with a $42 million annual payroll. Not surprisingly, the company has great interest in protecting water quality in the watershed and has been a prominent force in encouraging establishment of a watershed association.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance

The proposed masters project represents a very timely opportunity for a team of SNRE graduate students to help inform the establishment of a formal Saco River Watershed Association. Individuals within the watershed have been discussing the idea for two years and are now seeking specific guidance as they move forward. In 2014, a Saco River Conference was held in Fryeburg, Maine involving representatives of groups throughout the watershed who shared knowledge, practices, and ideas for working together to increase their collective impact on the issues and place that they care deeply about. Conference participants voiced the need for a more formalized way to bring people together to foster collaborative solutions to the many issues facing the watershed.  A workshop involving 55 individuals representing non-profit and community-based organizations, state and federal agencies, businesses and academic institutions gathered on December 2, 2016 to continue the discussion about establishing a formal Saco Watershed Collaborative organization. This recent workshop was facilitated by the masters project client, Dr. Chris Feurt of the Wells NERR.

The Saco estuary was the focus of an intense NSF funded research project from 2010 – 2015 as part of the Maine Sustainability Solutions Initiative. Interdisciplinary researchers from the University of New England and the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve collaborated with the rich stewardship network of organizations in the estuary portion of the watershed to develop a baseline assessment of water quality, wetlands, bird and fish biodiversity. A stakeholder assessment to characterize the Stewardship Network associated with sustaining the Saco estuary was part of this research. A frequent comment voiced by stakeholders engaged during this five-year research project was, “Why don’t you expand your work to the entire watershed?” Parties in the watershed are now primed to undertake that expansion.

Project Client

The client for this project is the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR), located in Wells, Maine (  It is one of 28 National Estuarine Research Reserves nationwide, managed by the NOAA Office for Coastal Management (  The Wells NERR conducts and facilitates research, education and stewardship activities within the broader southern Maine watershed ecosystem within which the NERR is physically located. Its mission is “to expand knowledge about coasts and estuaries, engage people in environmental learning, and involve communities in conserving natural resources, all with a goal of protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems around the Gulf of Maine.”

The client contact is Dr. Chris Feurt, Director of the Coastal Training Program at the Wells NERR and one of the facilitators of the Salmon Falls Watershed Collaborative process mentioned above.

Integrative Approach

An integrative approach is necessary for the success of this project. The student team must be able to engage in a knowledgeable manner with scientists, managers, local planners, elected officials, community members, landowners, policy-makers, NGOs, and businesses that have jurisdiction or interest in the watershed.  Knowledge of policy and planning processes, collaborative processes, individual and group behaviors and motivations, and communication and education are important dimensions of this project. Conservation Ecology students with an interest in careers in watershed management would benefit from learning about the social and policy dimensions of watershed management while, at the same time, contributing their knowledge in assessing the ecological issues of concern to the parties involved in this situation. Biodiversity conservation is a priority in the Saco Watershed for land trusts, state agencies, The Nature Conservancy and the National Forest Service.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Role for each program area: 

Conservation Ecology – this project context is a watershed with myriad ecological issues of concern that need to be knowledgeably discussed during interviews and captured in the project’s situation assessment. 

Environmental Policy and Planning – the student team will need to understand the questions that need to be probed during the situation assessment in order identify the important dimensions of the institutional context and specific policies that will affect the potential scope and activities of a collaborative watershed association.

Behavior, Education and Communication – the student team will need to be alert to the behaviors and motivations of individuals that affect their incentives to engage (or not) in the watershed association and the potential challenges this association should be structured to manage.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

This project will place the student team into the center of a real-world regional planning and management situation.  They will gain several practical skills that are frequently sought by employers in our field:

  • The “situation assessment” is an analytic tool used to unravel the complexity of “wicked problems.” It is an important tool in the “tool kit” of environmental professionals.
  • Development of a first-hand (vs. textbook) understanding of the legitimate but often conflicting interests of the “community” of people, organizations, governments, and businesses that comprise a “problem domain.” Employers seeking references for potential employees often ask questions such as: “How does this individual deal with a situation involving people with very different perspectives?” “How are their communication and meeting management skills?” “Are they able to conduct assessments that illuminate the underlying factors that must be addressed in a situation?” “Do they understand that problems are complex and require unpacking?” This masters project will build those skills.
  • Skills in cross-case analysis to derive lessons for a place-based enterprise.
  • Professional presentation skills.
Funding Sources: 

The client organization does not have available funds for this project but is able to accommodate the student team in the Wells NERR dorm whenever the team is in the region to conduct interviews and meet with the client.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 

final report containing four distinct sections:

  1. The situation assessment detailing the major issues in the watershed; the institutional context and policies that govern how planning and management decision-making occurs in the watershed; and, the major parties (public and private) and their interests and concerns about the watershed and their perspectives on establishment of a collaborative association.
  2. A comparison of the Saco River vs. Salmon Falls watershed issues, parties and processes, and what lessons from the Salmon Falls Collaborative might be transferable to the Saco River.
  3. A summary of insights gleaned from a literature review of community-based collaboration in watershed-scale planning and management beyond the immediate Maine and New Hampshire region, particularly examining collaborative organizations in which an ecosystem services approach is being employed.
  4. A set of policy, procedural and organizational recommendations for the Saco River watershed “community” about the ways they might move forward in establishing a Collaborative Watershed Association and the major factors that should be considered in doing so.

An in-person presentation of findings and recommendations to both the client organization and a watershed-wide gathering of interested groups and individuals.

Contact full name: 
Christine Feurt
Job title: 
Director, Coastal Training Program, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Julia Wondolleck
Contact Phone: 
207.646.1555 (x111)
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Alice Elliot
  • Sophia Paul
  • Garrett Powers
  • Kaitlyn Pritchard
Affiliation with U-M through the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERRS) System
Project Status: 
Past Project