A third tool for residents of communities to enact conservation improvements in their immediate area (in addition to Watershed Protection Improvement Districts and Watershed Community Cooperatives, which we discussed in previous posts in this blog series) is a Voluntary Green Neighbor Agreement (VGNA), a voluntary, flexible, public agreement among neighbors living within a watershed community that includes a pledge or commitment to abide by a set of sustainable, resilient and low-impact living practices at home and on their private property.1
VGNAs take advantage of natural human social and psychological mechanisms–positive peer pressure–to hold one another accountable to their stewardship commitments and work toward collective action goals that result in water quality improvements within a watershed. They are helpful in addressing non-point source pollution from private property owners.
A VGNA can be formed when a critical mass of neighbors within a watershed community take the initiative to create an ad hoc and informal watershed community committee. With technical assistance from Soil and Water Conservation District Staff and other technical experts, the committee generates a set of best management practices (BMPs) for sustainable and low-impact living, including riparian water quality, soil health and renewable energy. The committee can also create a GIS map of the watershed that includes homeowner parcel boundaries. Each property may be coded as riparian or non-riparian, with outreach to riparian homeowners being the higher priority. The committee then creates a draft VGNA that describes the watershed, includes an image of the watershed and the parcel maps, and the list of best management practices. The committee can set up a website that uses the watershed parcel map and a dashboard that monitors watershed impacts of collective behaviors. The watershed community committee conducts outreach to all landowners and homeowners within the watershed and presents the VGNA concepts. This outreach can be done during community events, through personal networks, or even a door-to-door meet-and-greet approach. Any neighbors who agree to participate complete the VGNA and return it to the watershed community committee.
The committee enters the VGNA commitments into the GIS web map for all to see. To add an element of gamification, those with a high commitment to many or all of the best management practices get their parcel colored deep green, and those with minimal commitment get their parcel colored light green. Non-participants get their parcel colored coded grey.
Neighbors who participate in the VGNAs may be asked to volunteer to help their neighbors install green infrastructure and serve as water quality monitors to collect data for measuring impacts on the watershed. Other data can also be collected. Monitoring data can be entered into the web dashboard on a regular basis to visualize the impacts of working together within the watershed.
Hosting regular community-based social events and gatherings (including educational events) that allow watershed neighbors to get to know one another is essential. Education on watershed processes, ecosystems services, and sustainable and resilient lifestyles is also key to improving literacy and behavior changes that foster watershed stewardship. Participant recognition for achievement and celebrations of watershed community milestones is also a good practice.
A second and more elaborate step might be to include the development of homeowner/ landowner/homestead stewardship management plans for a more comprehensive commitment to watershed stewardship.
- Voluntary Green Neighbor Agreements are not to be confused with corporate developers’ “Good Neighbor Agreements,” but these may offer some insights that can be incorporated into VGNA programs. See generally, Thalia González & Giovanni Saarman, Regulating Pollutants, Negative Externalities, and Good Neighbor Agreements: Who Bears the Burden of Protecting Communities?, 41 Ecology L. Q. 37 (2014), available at http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/elq/vol41/iss1/2; Douglas S. Kenney, et al., Evaluating the Use of Good Neighbor Agreements for Environmental and Community Protection: Final Report, (Natural Res. Law Ctr., Univ. of Colo. Sch. of Law 2004), available at http://scholar.law.colorado.edu/books_reports_studies/19.