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The Watershed Environmental Management Systems (WEMS) concept was created by in response to a perceived need for a national, comprehensive, integrated, and accountable approach for meeting water quality standards. WEMS offers a “bottom up” approach for administration of the Clean Water Act at a watershed scale. This approach allows for integration of regulatory and non-regulatory programs using proven models such as the business franchise model, the business strategic plan model, and the environmental management systems (EMS) model. The envisioned WEMS would treat each watershed as a franchise delivering a product, in effect, water quality standards. This approach combines a business strategic planning model with traditional watershed management bringing business organization to science-based watershed decisionmaking. WEMS uses a comprehensive assessment framework to guide watershed leaders in building, implementing, and continuously improving an EMS-like watershed plan, by combining the EMS “plan, do, check, act” cycle with science-based methodologies to assess water quality needs and evaluate progress. By following the step-by-step manual, watersheds may employ standardized WEMS techniques to achieve individualized results based on the particular needs of the watershed.

WEMS fosters public participation to assess problems, develop and prioritize goals, and plan, implement, monitor and track activity. It also requires reliable commitments from federal, state, and local governments, and private and voluntary activity, to ensure its implementation (e.g. memoranda of understanding). WEMS is designed to utilize and complement existing regulatory and non-regulatory programs, plans and funding, rather than replace them. Under the WEMS approach, watershed stakeholders take a holistic approach to watershed management by following a scientifically valid, pre-approved decision-making framework in evaluating water quality data, regulatory requirements, other environmental goals, land uses, activities, programs, and funding sources to better understand the watershed's assets and deficiencies. Final outputs of the WEMS are a watershed strategic plan designed by the locally formed watershed committee, data for regulatory agencies on how well their programs are working to deliver environmental results, and potentially, information on where regulatory agencies cause an impediment to improving water quality.

Watersheds that choose to implement WEMS will benefit by understanding and prioritizing their particular needs, such as meeting water-quality goals and acquiring funding. It is envisioned that WEMS watersheds could also benefit from lower drinking water treatments costs and healthier communities overall. In addition, implementing WEMS provides stakeholders with diverse and sometimes disparate priorities a process by which they can work cooperatively to address common problems. As participation is voluntary, WEMS can also help watersheds manage their government programs without government pressure, and provides a showcase for existing positive activities as well as a forum for testing innovative solutions to reliably control non-point source pollution. WEMS also provides regulatory agencies with a source of reliable data through its standardized, comprehensive data collection and analysis methodologies; and a vehicle for harnessing and harmonizing the existing capacity at the watershed level to effect positive change.

Overall, the Watershed Environmental Management System concept is a comprehensive approach to pollution control from both point and non-point sources that requires local leadership and is accountable to both the regulatory agencies and the public.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2004

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