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Collaboratives Behind the Scenes: River Network

Welcome to the Western Collaborative Conservation Network’s profile series “Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes.” This series features Q&As with different conservation organizations to provide a view into what it takes to run a collaborative organization from challenges faced in building partnerships to tips for budding organizations. Whether you’re already running a collaborative and are looking to increase your efficiency or are thinking of starting a collaborative but want to know more about what you’re getting into, we hope you find this series insightful.

We had the pleasure to speak with Chelsea Silva and Brian Murphy from the River Network

River Network is a national organization that works to grow and strengthen a transformational national network of water, justice, and river advocates. This presentation will introduce River Network’s national programs and priorities as well as the organization’s Colorado River Basin-focused priority outcomes and strategies. Presenters will share their work in supporting community-based organizations (CBOs) and stream management planning with an overview of River Network’s Colorado Stream Management Plan Peer Learning Network. The Yampa River Collaborative will be introduced as a model of the Colorado River Basin’s work and partnership with CBOs. 


Chelsea Silva, Healthy Rivers Program Associate. Chelsea manages the Colorado Stream Management Plan Peer Learning Network which provides leaders and coalitions around Colorado with a venue for information sharing, problem solving, and peer learning. Her education is in environmental science and policy and Spanish, and she has training in environmental social science, natural resource facilitation, and nonprofit leadership. Chelsea grew up in Boise, Idaho and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah on Newe Sogobia (Eastern Shoshone), Timpanogos, Goshute, and Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) lands. 


Brian Murphy, Healthy Rivers Program Manager. Brian is passionate about working on the ground with local communities, providing technical assistance and innovative solutions that support leaders working to ensure their communities and rivers are healthy and resilient into the future. He holds a PhD from Colorado State University and has worked in the water resources planning and river science field for over 20 years as a licensed professional engineer. Born and raised in Spokane, Washington and lives and works in Denver, Colorado, on Arapaho and Cheyenne lands. 


Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Chelsea and Brian, please share a little about River Network and how it got started.
Chelsea: River Network started as an organization in 1988, and from the very beginning, our founder, Phil Wallen, saw this need: there’s all these issues in watersheds, and yet there’s not groups in every watershed working on issues. I’m not exactly a historian of the organization, but from what I understand, he saw two ways to tackle this issue. When we first started, one of our ways of approaching this work was through land acquisitions and citizen capacity building. The other method, which we still use, is through working with people on the ground to try to help them be stewards and protectors of watersheds. 
Today, our work is structured around our three priorities as an organization: healthy, resilient rivers, safe and affordable drinking water, and climate-resilient communities. Most of what Brian and I do is in the healthy, resilient rivers category. We are a formal NGO, and we have our CEO/President who oversees our staff. 
Brian: I was on a phone call yesterday with our new CEO, Raj Shukla, and he’s a spark plug, a real animated guy. He’s excited about supporting watershed groups, and we are also interested in seeing results, and seeing how we can really help watershed groups with their varying challenges. 
What is the River Network’s mission? And what kinds of groups do you support?
Chelsea: Our mission is to strengthen a transformational national network of water justice and river advocates. In Colorado, we’re working with a lot of nonprofit groups that are focused on watershed conservation and preservation. Some of them have just one staff member, some of them are just volunteers, and others might be a little bit more formalized with a full staff. Because of our work’s focus on watersheds, we also end up working with conservation districts, agricultural organizations, cities, and state agencies who are looking to restore their waterways.
Brian: More recently, we’ve been branching out and supporting, in the Yampa for example, Community Agriculture Alliance and the Yampa River Collaborative. River Network’s sweet spot is generally watershed groups or community based organizations. In Colorado, we’re branching out a bit more to support some of the agricultural alliances or local municipalities.
What is it like to collaborate together? What are the different aspects that you two work together on?
Chelsea:  Brian and I both started last year, and it was a really nice fit for us to get hired together, because my background is in environmental social science and natural resource facilitation, and Brian has a background in engineering. When we work on these stream management plans with community based organizations, we come in and provide different kinds of support. I’m there in part to provide facilitation: How do we engage the stakeholders that we need to engage? How do we make sure that we’re focusing on the right content and keeping the process moving along? My expertise is also in learning about people’s perceptions, so I bring that into the development process of these stream management plans, and into leading our Colorado Stream Management Planning Peer Learning Network, one of several peer groups that River Network hosts. Brian comes in with a level of technical engineering expertise that is really important to stream management planning as well. We’re able to work together and bridge this social-natural science in our work. By the way, readers can learn more about stream management plans in Colorado at, an online Resource Library for watershed planning in Colorado. 
Brian: I’ve worked in the river and watershed world in Colorado for about 20 years now, mainly on the Front Range of Colorado, but in the last 4 or 5 years before I joined River Network, I was working more on the Western Slope. So, one of the things that Chelsea and I have been tag teaming on more is where my network overlaps with the work that we’re doing.
I think we’ve developed a good rapport on how to support each other with different outreach efforts, and that helps us manage expectations with partners that we work with. When you have a personal relationship with somebody, it’s easier to have conversations. It’s not necessarily that they’re difficult conversations, but there’s only two of us, and there’s lots of watershed groups out there. We partner together a lot on how we can best meet the needs of, in particular, leading edge coalitions that we feel are on the front lines of the stream management planning world.
Field trip participants learn how to collect macroinvertebrates during a field trip with the Colorado Stream Management Plan Peer Learning Network (June 2023)

Landowners gather for a guided creek walk event to learn about the history of West Plum Creek as part of the West Plum Creek Stream Management Plan (September 2022)
What advice would you have for folks in similar positions, where you come into a new place, as a new face, and try to build those relationships with limited capacity to do so?
Chelsea: Get to know your audience before you start explaining what your work is and asking people to participate or work with you. Learn about peoples’ values and needs first so that you can share your project goals and understand how your goals align with your audience. Otherwise, you risk closing doors because you haven’t taken the time to build trust.  It’s about taking the time to find and meet people. This is  not only helpful for building more trust in the community, but it’s also nice for me because it’s inspiring, and it helps me to feel like we’re really connected. So my advice is to listen and learn, be clear about what your work is, be honest about what you do and do not know, and you will find those people who want to participate, because they’re out there.
Brian: I think that’s oftentimes what takes the most amount of time, and it can be challenging to identify the key stakeholders, the shining stars that really have the passion to to work towards building a watershed organization. I think finding those key people and working with a steering committee or leadership team is really powerful. And at the end of the day, Chelsea and I aren’t making decisions for the watershed groups. We’re trying to empower them to make decisions, whether that’s on their approaches to outreach, some of the technical work that they might be doing, or consultants that they’re hiring. It really becomes a relationship building exercise, and that takes time, takes patience and and it also just means putting yourself out there, whether that’s going to conferences, going to workshops, knocking on doors, whatever that might be. My advice, going off what Chelsea said, is to figure out your entry point into being able to know the audience. Spend some time doing research and thinking about where there are opportunities outside of the watershed group. In Yampa, for example, there’s the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. I’ve found that a watershed group, if it’s in a good position within the community, will have broad partnerships. That’s a good model for not being an island unto yourself in doing this work. It makes it difficult if you aren’t building partnerships, even if they’re not directly connected to a watershed.
How do you maintain the connections and communication pathways within your partnership?
Chelsea: For the groups that were more regularly involved with, we have regular check-ins. In addition, I send out regular emails with upcoming events for our Peer Learning Network. I would say that, especially for those projects that we’re more involved with, having folks’ cell phone numbers is so important; we can just give them a call. I think, for me, it’s nice to hear from people.
Brian: There’s so much that comes from the ability to have a conversation with somebody face to face, whether it’s looking at their stream that’s eroding or looking at their field that it’s been in their family for generations. We learn a lot from those conversations, and then are better able to connect with the landowners and build stronger partnerships. 
How do you fund these collaborative projects?
Brian: A lot of it is grants. River Network itself is a grant funded organization, primarily through nonprofits, foundations, agencies, private donors and the like. I would say the Colorado team is somewhat unique in that we receive funding directly from the state agency called the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s grant program. It helps Chelsea and I diversify the work that we do. Since we’re not working for one specific foundation, there can be lots of different projects. I think being able to be connected to a State agency that is really supportive of stream management planning watershed health planning across the State gives us credibility that we may not have if we were just coming from a private foundation or private donor. It’s nice to have that diversity of funding that comes from the State. 
At the end of the day, it’s really about the rivers and the streams that are part of the community, and asking, “how can we do our part to help those communities?”, whether that’s the communities that we live in or the community based organizations that we support.
Field trip participants tour project implementation sites along the Gunnison River with the Colorado Stream Management Plan Peer Learning Network (August 2023)

In Sept 2023, Chelsea and Brian presented at the WCCN All Partners meeting, you can watch the recording here.