Design with nature: working wetlands, water quality trading and Willamette restoration

Courtesy The Freshwater Trust
Tree planting along the Rogue river, part of a Freshwater Trust water quality trading program

Part two of a new series of stories that investigates how the business community is creating solutions to climate change.  

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In 2004, the city of Prineville had a $62 million problem. It needed to supersize its wastewater treatment plant for an influx of newcomers. It tried to triple system development charges on new businesses, but these economic development opportunities packed up for neighboring cities.

Four years later, the city tried a different tack. Instead of building a way out, the city developed a 120-acre wetlands complex. Natural pools filtered the water, while residents enjoyed 5.4 miles of hiking trails and salmon swam in cool streams.

The bill? $7 million. New business taxes returned to normal, and the city became competitive once again.

Now, as climate change poses greater water challenges than ever before, other cities are turning to this design-by-nature approach. Climate change is cooking our water like tea in a kettle, rendering streams inhospitable for salmon, steelhead and other native fish species. The possibility of flooding has increased. One way out is to build fortifications of concrete and steel, but another approach leans on nature’s built-in defenses.  

oF5o5Ze2The Rogue River. Photo: The Freshwater Trust

The Freshwater Trust, one of the state’s largest conservation nonprofits, is dabbling in the emerging field of water quality trading, with some eye-popping cost savings to show for it. Water quality trading draws on the success of carbon markets, where polluters who can’t afford to install equipment to control emissions can instead buy credits from people with low-carbon projects.

In 2012 the city of Medford contracted with the nonprofit after projections showed the city’s water would soon exceed temperature limits under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The city contemplated installing a $20 million refrigerator among other expensive options.

Instead, The Freshwater Trust knocked on the doors of farmers along the Rogue River in the surrounding valley. The nonprofit offered to pay them $200 to $400 per acre for allowing trees and other native plants to be planted on their riverbanks. Some were skeptical, but most took up the offer.

“We’re not the government, and we’re coming with cash in hand.” says Alex Johnson, freshwater fund director at The Freshwater Trust. 

The trees’ shade cooled the water upstream of Medford. The city bought credits from The Freshwater Trust to comply with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The check came to a mere $6.5 million.

Trading can help solve water problems across the state and the country. The nonprofit is working on another water quality trading project with the city of Ashland. For the Mackenzie River, the Eugene Water and Electric Board unveiled its Pure Water Partners project, a collaboration between local businesses, landowners, universities and the city. As with the Freshwater Trust model, Pure Waters pays landowners for restoration efforts, including tree plantings, along the river.

Projects that leverage natural systems are much cheaper, Johnson says, than concrete-and-steel infrastructure. The water trading projects also eliminate or sharply cut most of the carbon emissions from construction.

“If we just have to convince 40 people to change their practices and we can pay them, that can be cheaper than building,” Johnson says.


The projects also support the local economy, generating spending at nurseries, landscaping firms and other local businesses instead of on the out-of-state engineering firms often contracted for large infrastructure projects.

“There’s a microbusinesses case where we’ve helped bring a lot of new money to the green economy down there,” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of money floating around in the Rogue and we envision more and more.”

Further east, some business owners are using simple landscape design to save on water costs and counter climate impacts. In a fitting solution for an Oregon business, Scott Campbell, owner of Silvies Valley Ranch near Burns, restored the river on his property by emulating beavers.

“This is a case study of how small, distributed natural actions can be better quantified to justify why societies should pay for those instead of big infrastructure” 
—Alex Johnson, The Freshwater Trust

Before white settlers arrived in the region, beavers dammed the river every four to six miles. The dams raised the waterline in nearby meadows, preserving grasses and sedges while keeping the native-invasive western juniper at bay. Logs and rotten biomass accumulated in the ponds, making them carbon sinks.

In 1822, British trappers killed hundreds of thousands of beavers. By the 1830s, none were left. In the ensuing years, flooding obliterated the dams.

With the help of Oregon State University researchers, Campbell installed low-cost mud and gravel dams along the river. His neighbors did the same with steel or wooden posts woven with a willow lattice. In the 12 years since he started the project, Campbell says, he’s restored 16 miles of creeks and the adjacent meadows. Stream restoration costs range from $4,000 to $8,000 per mile, but Campbell’s dams cost just $20,000 in all to build and maintain.

The real punch, Campbell says, was the $100,000 in legal, consulting and permitting fees he paid to navigate state and federal regulations. Campbell hopes to help introduce a bill in the next legislative session to make it easier for property owners to experiment with DIY restoration strategies.

“Nobody can agree on what restoration is,” Campbell says. “A lot of people don’t understand these newer techniques.”

Related Story: The trail that cuts through the heart of rural land-use politics in Oregon’s High Desert 

Going with the flow of nature is also the philosophy behind a renewed public-private-partnership between Meyer Memorial Trust and the Bonneville Power Administration to restore the Willamette River.

With $1 million in funding from the foundation and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and $800,000 from the Bonneville Power Administration, the four-year project launches in January. It brings together scientists, farmers, nonprofits and business people for regular meetings and action on environmental issues like temperature increases, flooding and harmful algal blooms. The resulting restoration efforts will target two-thirds of the 200-mile river, and seven main tributaries from the Cascades and coast range.

“Our strategies are focused on letting the river do what it’s supposed to do naturally,” says Allison Hensey, Meyer’s Willamette River Initiative director. “We need to think of our shared water investments as natural and built infrastructure. The investments we’re making aren’t enough. We’re going to have to step up and do more.”

With city governments strapped for cash, a state budget deeply in the red and a federal government that doesn’t believe in climate change, doing more might not be enough either. New water projects must do more with less. If cities can put numbers on the benefits from designing with nature, Johnson says, they can scale the solution to other climate problems.

“This is a case study of how small, distributed natural actions can be better quantified to justify why societies should pay for those instead of big infrastructure,” he says.

Next week in the series, we’ll examine solutions to wildfire management.

 Past articles in this series:

Oregon’s water infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded in 100 years. Some think it’s time to fix that. 

Climate change dominates business leadership talks

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