Tackling the ‘How’ Question: Enabling and Enacting Practical Action for Managing the Wicked Problem of Nonpoint Source Pollution in Catchments

  • James J. Patterson
  • Jennifer Bellamy
  • Carl Smith
Part of the Springer Water book series (SPWA)


Managing nonpoint source (NPS) pollution in catchments is a ‘wicked problem’ and a persistent challenge in protecting the health of freshwater and marine ecosystems, and the human systems that depend on them. NPS pollution arises through complex interactions between human activities and dynamic natural systems, both spatially and across multiple levels of organisation. A key challenge is enabling and enacting purposeful and concerted collective action (‘practical action’) within multi-level catchment management systems. This challenge has been explored through theory-informed empirical research, involving an in-depth case study in South-East Queensland (SEQ), Australia, which is a large, complex and rapidly growing coastal region facing significant ongoing waterway health challenges. Three embedded catchment cases within the SEQ region were studied using multiple qualitative methods (semi-structured interviews, field observation, document review, feedback workshops). A conceptual framework was used to analyse ‘enabling capacities’ that are important for practical action, which were: prior experience and contingency; institutional arrangements; collaboration; engagement; vision and strategy; knowledge building and brokerage; resourcing; entrepreneurship and leadership; and reflection and adaptation. Practical action was found to be emergent from the combined interplay of these enabling capacities, at and across multiple levels. These findings imply that management efforts need to focus on building enabling capacities that underpin the emergence of practical action within complex, dynamic and changing situations, rather than solely on prescribing actions and targets to be achieved.


Knowledge Building Practical Action Wicked Problem Catchment Management Integrate Catchment Management 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This work was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award, a Queensland Government Smart Futures PhD Top-Up scholarship, and financial and in-kind support provided by the University of Queensland ( and Healthy Waterways Limited ( The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of these organisations.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • James J. Patterson
    • 1
  • Jennifer Bellamy
    • 1
  • Carl Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Agriculture and Food SciencesUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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