Local Watershed Protection Toolkit (2): Watershed Community Cooperatives

This three-part blog series discusses a suite of tools that municipalities and other community stakeholders can use to address environmental problems at the local level. In our first blog post in this series, we discussed Watershed Protection Improvement Districts, which can be established by local governments.  We now discuss Watershed Community Cooperatives.

Watershed Community Cooperatives

A Watershed Community Cooperative (co-op) is a democratic business corporation that exists to serve and benefit its members and is owned by its members.  It includes watershed protection and ecosystem services generation as business purposes. A co-op uses democratic decision making processes, so member owners have a say in the business decisions of the co-op.   Although they are not as prominent today, co-ops have a long and venerable heritage in American society, and are a quintessential American institution.

A Watershed Community Cooperative can serve many of the same purposes as a nonprofit watershed group or a Watershed Protection Improvement District, but its non-governmental and economic focus may make it a more viable option in many watershed communities.  One of the greatest benefits of co-ops is that they allow local people to take initiative locally, and its organizers do not need to wait until their local government is ready to act. A co-op mobilizes a critical mass of neighbors in a watershed community to become members and engage in collective action.   

A Watershed Community Cooperative creates a strategy for protecting all its members’ private properties within the watershed.  It is most effective in addressing nonpoint source pollution by getting all its members to take conservation actions on their own property and by installing green infrastructure projects.  Co-ops can also engage in business planning, strategic planning for non-point source pollution, setting standards, setting member fees based on level of watershed impact (similar to impact fees), group purchasing of green products,  entering into financial contracts, and take other actions to protect and improve members’ properties within the watershed. A co-op can tweak ideas from homeowner associations. Co-op members can be a labor source for conservation projects on fellow members’ properties, saving money and building community. Neighbors benefit financially and in other ways only by being active and productive members of the co-op. As neighbors who are not part of the co-op see the benefits and decide to join, co-op membership grows, along with the positive ecological impacts on watersheds from collective action.

Specific actions a Watershed Community Cooperative can take are:

∙ Use revenues to provide homeowners grants or no-interest loans to implement green infrastructure and best practices such as septic repairs, water retention ponds, rain barrels, permeable pavements, tree planting along creeks, and gray water systems. These practices can improve property values, improve the quality of life of members, reduce costs and insurance premiums and reduce risks. These best practices also help create cleaner water and less floodwater, which helps reduce costs downstream.

∙ Just as a Watershed Protection Improvement District can do, a co-op with a critical mass of homeowners and landowners can contract with downstream communities to provide ecosystem services (cleaner water and flood control) for a fee (“payment for ecosystem services”), which can reduce the costs to downstream governments and residents for water purification and flood control and remediation.

∙ A co-op may also take on income generating projects, such as solar energy microgeneration, operating an organic CSA farm or fish farm, or manufacturing semi-permeable pavement.  With effective business planning based on payments for ecosystem services, income generation, and cost of living savings for members, the co-op creates stable revenues and long term financial viability.   

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