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A vision for Northwest watersheds

Posted by Renee Magyar on February 8, 2016

Mike Gerel, Sustainable Northwest's Director of Programs shares his thoughts and vision in a Q&A

BLM-Lower-Crooked-River_600
Photo by Bureau of Land Management

To get us started, what is your definition of a watershed?

The textbook definition is an area of land that drains surface and underground water, sediment, and other materials to a common outlet. Watersheds vary in size from large river basins, like the Columbia River Basin that drains 165 million acres, to smaller ones that drain just a few acres. I view watersheds with a broader lens, as not just the water, but also the interconnected ecology, economies, and cultures that exist within them. True watershed restoration on Western landscapes requires ensuring all of these elements are healthy.

Give us an overview of the state of water resources in watersheds in the Pacific Northwest.

Before joining Sustainable Northwest, I spent most of my career working on Chesapeake Bay watershed issues on the East Coast. In that region, there is plenty of water but not enough land. In the rural Pacific Northwest, there is generally an abundance of land, but not enough water. Many of Oregon’s watersheds are “over-allocated,” that is, more water has been promised for wildlife, farming, and community-use than is actually available. So, especially in times of drought, which have been becoming more frequent, there is simply not enough water, which leads to conflict, sick fish, and devastated rural economies.

How did water end up getting over-allocated?

I would say it’s a combination of societal change and unintended consequences. Implementation of the Endangered Species Act has created new allocations for aquatic species, where none existed before. Federal and state governments are also better enforcing Native American trust rights, which require that a specified amount of water remain in-stream to support hunting, fishing, and gathering consistent with treaties signed in the 19th century. Further, prior to the modern recognition of the needs of fish, the Reclamation Act of 1902 created federal “irrigation projects” that guaranteed water to homesteaders, many returning war veterans, to help transform arid land into farmland.  In the future, population growth, energy development, and climate change will further stress already limited water supplies.

What is the best way to address competing needs for water?

I think it comes down to people. When diverse interests with a stake in local water resources sit down to genuinely listen to and learn from one another, they can find common ground, and solutions that meet their collective need. Nothing can create new water, but we can figure out how to better use and share it. The people who live and work in, and care for rural communities across the Pacific Northwest: farmers, conservation groups, natural resource agency staff, and local citizens, are best suited to collaboratively figure out the best way to share, efficiently use, and help steward water for the benefit of all who reply upon it.

Is this what you call “human-scale” conservation?

Yes. All of us who work to restore watersheds use terms of scale to describe where we are working; terminology like “landscape-scale,” watershed-scale,” ecosystem-scale,” and “community-scale.” Sustainable Northwest works at all of these levels, but virtually everything we do involves talking to people. The most powerful means by which we seek to improve watersheds is by connecting in a real way with other human beings. I believe deeply that this human-scale conservation is the only way to tackle the West’s most difficult water challenges; increasingly, agencies, funders, and other thought-leaders concur. I don’t know of other conservation groups that so explicitly take this view; it is something that makes Sustainable Northwest unique and one of the main reasons I work here.

Have local communities so far been successful in tackling water issues?

In part. Watershed restoration projects over the last three decades have made tremendous progress at the site and small watershed level. Formerly polluted, degraded, or dry streams are now flowing and supporting healthy and balanced use by wildlife, industry, and regular people. However, much of this work has occurred in a sort of “checker-board” across the landscape, driven by organizational service areas, natural resource agency priorities, landowner interest, and simple opportunity. These efforts in total have not resulted in the magnitude of impact needed for the West’s great waterways to have enough clean water to meet water demand and water quality standards, nurture healthy populations of native fish, and support sustainable natural resource-reliant industries.

How do we “scale-up” from success in communities to results in river basins?

I see formal partnerships between stakeholders that operate with trust and honesty across geographic, political, and cultural boundaries as the best way to drive results up from the site to the river basin as a whole.  Such partnerships can build coordinated plans that prioritize the type, location, and timing of restoration work that will make a lasting difference on a local and basin-scale.

What would you say to those who say the only way to protect lands is to buy them up and ban or limit natural resource use?

I know that those who advocate for these options care for the places they are protecting, and there is a place for land acquisition, especially for drinking water source areas and when private landowners desire this option. However, our society simply can’t buy and fence our way out of the problem. Private lands provide food, fiber, fuel, and recreational opportunities that benefit all of us, especially the small communities that dot the West. My belief is that local people working together can be the best stewards of our water resources if given the opportunity or requirement to do so sustainability.

What is the mission of Sustainable Northwest’s Water Program?

The mission is “to nurture local partnerships that restore watersheds for wildlife and people.” We currently work with partnerships in the iconic Klamath, John Day, and Rogue River Basins of Oregon that are seeking to accelerate the pace, scale, and quality of collaborative watershed restoration. We are also involved in inter- and intra-state groups to pursue policies that further the Program’s mission.

How does the Water Program help watershed partnerships?

We start by identifying local champions (who sometimes invite us to an area), meeting one-on-one with stakeholders to learn their challenges and explain our approach, and taking the time to get to know the people and place. When the time is right we bring people together to share their perspectives, identify common beliefs and goals, and create their own solutions that respect the needs of all stakeholders. We do not tell people what to do. We bring an open agenda and a strong belief in “triple-bottom line” solutions that truly work for ecosystems, economies, and community equity. Depending on the local need, we create new partnerships, help existing groups become more effective, conquer financial, political, or cultural barriers to implementation of existing solutions, or bring in completely new ideas and tools to address unsolved challenges. Finally, our staff brings a special mix of technical skills, matching funding, and authenticity to provide facilitation and conflict resolution, organizational development, and expert science and policy consulting to help rural areas address today and tomorrow’s water challenges.

Where do environmental laws and regulations fit in?

They are vital. The Clean Water Act was passed when I was two years old and has inspired my professional career. Sustainable Northwest will not support solutions that are inconsistent with the most current law and science, and always advise our local partners to do the same. The simple fact is that solutions that fail to do so will not—and should not—survive scrutiny from agencies, funders, and those with different views. However, the law and science rarely provide all the answers to our thorniest water issues, so that is why trusting partnerships that can tease out workable solutions from legal, scientific, and political shades of grey are so valuable.

How do you choose where to work?

I would say the three main ingredients are having local partners who value our involvement, landscapes that support native wildlife and working lands, and the presence of natural resource goals and challenges that can be addressed through local collaboration.

Has your work with partnerships been successful?

Yes. Beginning a decade ago, Sustainable Northwest sparked and helped maintain discussions in the Klamath Basin that created the coalition of over 40 diverse stakeholders that created the Klamath Agreements between 2010 and 2014. While still pending approval by Congress, these Agreements created a strong coalition that helped maintain relative peace and laid out a host of solutions, from water-sharing agreements to habitat restoration plans, many of which are being implemented. Further, we have worked recently with national experts in hydropower law, risk mitigation, insurance, and construction to chart a potential new pathway to Klamath dam removal that will not require Congressional approval. We are excited that this proactive work now forms the core of the approach to dam removal being pursued by the U.S., State of California, State of Oregon, and PacifiCorp in 2016.

We began in 2014 to help form the John Day Basin Partnership, a group of 22 fish, farm, and community interests who banded together to build a coordinated basinwide plan to bring in more funding  for watershed restoration. This young partnership is doing very well. It was nominated by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) for Partnership of the Year in 2015 and was just awarded $150,000 in OWEB funding to finish the basin plan. Finally, we are helping an existing community-based organization, the Rogue Basin Partnership, expand their membership to better represent the spectrum of interests in the Rogue River basin and improve their organizational capabilities. They were also just awarded funding from OWEB to further build out their group.

What is your favorite part of this work?

Without question my favorite part of my work is getting to work with local partners that have such great passion for their place. It is inspiring to connect with people who care deeply about everything that makes their home special—from the fish and wildlife, to ranching life, to the beautiful vistas of rural Oregon.

What is the most challenging part of this work?

The greatest challenge is the temporal distance between our efforts and desired outcomes. The outcomes sought by the partnerships we support are ambitious and will take time—in some cases, lots of time. For example, it took generations to over allocate water and degrade our watersheds, and so it may take at least a generation to realize more resilient wild salmon and steelhead populations, sustainable agricultural operations, and revitalized rural communities. These results are likely to arrive years after we have moved on. I quench my thirst for tangible progress by trusting our approach, acknowledging the quality of the partnerships and plans we helped create, and establishing metrics and monitoring that allow us to better track and project forward the long-term impact of our work. But as Maya Angelo says in a quote that comforts me when impatience drifts in, “All great achievements require time.”

You live in Portland and Sustainable Northwest is based in Portland, yet you work in mostly rural areas. Does this pose a problem for you?

I have never really bought into the urban-rural divide concept. Urban and rural areas face challenges—some are the same, some are different. There is no question that rural communities in the West historically reliant on natural resource use have been hit particularly hard by the tides of change. People see things through the lens of their individual life experiences, and that can certainly lead to differences of opinion. But when it comes down to it, people are people. We are all striving for prosperity, safety, and love for ourselves and our family.  The more we actually talk to each other, seek to connect in a real way, and approach each other with understanding, respect, and compassion, the easier it is to see how much we have in common. Ironically, the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, currently hosting an unwelcomed band of out-of-state militants, represents an excellent example of exactly how cooperation amongst very diverse interests from across the state can find a way to manage federal land for the benefit of birds and agriculture. By putting this approach into practice in my more than 20 years tackling often complex and divisive water issues—far from my hometown in New York and homes in the cities from Washington DC to Portland, OR—I have never felt unwelcome or been made to feel like an outsider. I hear about the urban-rural divide in the academic reports and the newspapers, not from people in the areas where I have work. The Sustainable Northwest Water Program strives to emulate this thinking and undertake our work with the open heart and mind necessary to leave aside such divides and approach each other as fellow humans who have largely the same needs and desires.

Why should city residents west of the Cascades care about natural resource issues far from their homes?

Having lived in a city for the last 27 years, I think about this a lot. A lot of the drinking water for the cities where I have lived comes from the hills. These are the “headwaters” where watersheds begin. For example, the City of Portland’s drinking water comes from the protected Bull Run Watershed on the Mount Hood National Forest. Similarly, New York City’s water comes from rural watersheds north of the City. As we’ve seen from the unfolding tragedy in Flint, Michigan, where the city’s drinking water is contaminated with lead, we tend to take safe drinking water for granted until it isn’t safe. Next, remember that rearing and spawning habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other native fish are also mostly found in cool, spring-fed streams in rural areas far from diners and fisherman who live in the city. Agricultural production is Oregon’s second-largest economic driver at $5.4 billion, and is the cornerstone of most rural areas in the region. Finally, catastrophic wildfire, in addition to threatening lives and homes near our great forests, also damages water and air quality, reduces recreational opportunities, and drains government coffers at the expense of other needs. Put simply, every city dweller in the Pacific Northwest that drinks water, eats, enjoys the outdoors, and pays taxes should care about the restoration and protection of the ecological and economic health of rural landscapes.

What can urban residents do to help?

Take the time to learn where your drinking water, food, and energy come from. Find ways to support nonprofits, government agencies, landowners, and businesses that are working to nurture these resources in a way that addresses the needs of wildlife and people. Visit rural places that are different than where you live. Walk the streets and trails, grab a bite to eat, and talk to people. Greater understanding and time spent together is the best way for us humans to leave a legacy of safe and abundant water for all who need it.