Sustainability Plus

Communications > Sustainability Plus > Posts > Sustainability's Coming of Age, Part III

Ever since she was graduate student, Dr. Eve Brantley has been steeped in the hard science of water quality and how sustainable practices associated with this issue related across academic disciplinary lines.

But as she quickly learned through on-the-job experience, success involved far more than merely laying the hard facts on the table.

"When I started work, there already were bookcases full of water quality and storm water management," says Brantley, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System water resources specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of agronomy and soils.

"The science has been there and continues to develop," she says.

But as she has learned through years of experience, putting this knowledge to work involved what she and other sustainability professionals have come to describe as "buy-in." She learned that success in her job was measured every bit as much by whether she had managed to convince one or more influential people in these communities to buy into the desired change.

"It really is the secret weapon — finding a champion, a person or persons who will not only promote the cause but will also step forward and take the risk.

"We know how to get the job done because we have that bookcase full of hard scientific data, but having someone locally to step up and champion the cause often is crucial," Brantley says.

One of her earliest lessons in the value of buy-in involved the restoration of a portion of Saugahatchee Creek in which a steadily eroding bank threatened one of the city's main sewer lines.

"It was eroding to such an extent that the city knew action needed to be taken," Brantley recalls.

Undertaking conventional infrastructural changes was one way of correcting the problem, but Brantley working with local champions, suggested a more durable and environmentally sound bioengineering method, which would involve a series of natural practices to address this instability.

Instead of developing hard structures, such as gabion baskets, to minimize this erosion, Brantley, the City Water Resources Management team and the Saugahatchee Watershed Management Project (SWaMP) advised using log structures to divert water energy and planting vegetation instead.

"We wanted to plant native plants — to re-grade the banks not only to address the erosion but to provide them with long-term stability," she says, adding that the effects of this control would become stronger with time as the vegetation and roots strengthened.

While both alternatives cost the same, the sustainable approach, which involved what Brantley describes as green engineering, required some extra planning and work. Even so, the watershed champions were convinced that this extra effort would pay bigger dividends for the community over the long term.

In time, the Saugahatchee effort to use new technologies has become a successful demonstration project for other communities — one that began when a handful of local stakeholder's stepped forward and expressed a willingness to think out of the proverbial box, Brantley says.

A willingness to listen is also a key factor too, Brantley says — something she learned years ago when she first started work with Georgia's Adopt-a-Stream Citizen Monitoring program.

"You solicit stakeholders' and clients' views first to learn where they stand before you start offering your own recommendations," she says.

Brantley says the lessons she's learned introducing sustainable practices are not new: they can be traced at least as far back to the pioneering work of rural sociologist Everett Rogers, who discovered the role early adopters play in the transmission of new ideas.

"If you can really find that early adopter — that champion — who is respected by others and who is willing to step up, you can be assured of a reasonable guarantee of success," she says.