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Improving River Health With Natural Infrastructure And Incentives

Craig Burns' hazelnut farm abuts the McKenzie River northeast of Eugene, Ore. A new voluntary program provides incentives for property owners to ensure their land is managed in ways that improve the river's health.
Amelia Templeton
Craig Burns' hazelnut farm abuts the McKenzie River northeast of Eugene, Ore. A new voluntary program provides incentives for property owners to ensure their land is managed in ways that improve the river's health.

For decades, the government has enforced regulations to protect and improve water quality. But what about rewarding people for voluntarily managing their land in ways that keep rivers cool and clean?

It's an approach that's underway along two Oregon watersheds: the McKenzie River east of Eugene and the Rogue River near Medford.

Marilyn Cross owns property along a stretch of the McKenzie. In 2010 she was among hundreds of landowners who opposed an ordinance that aimed to protect the river's water quality by restricting landowners' streamside activity. The ordinance would have imposed development restrictions 200 feet from the banks.

“It’s not that we don’t all want to protect the river and that zone. It’s just that we don’t think that’s the way to do it,” Cross said. “It would have had a severe impact, we think, on the economy of this area.”

Lane County commissioners ended up dropping the proposal.

Now, four years later, Cross is eager to get on board with the latest program aimed at ensuring landowners take care of the McKenzie by taking care of their riverfront property.

“I would love to see more native vegetation along the river. I would love to see fewer lawns,” Cross said.

One of the reasons she likes this new approach is spelled out in the program's name: the Voluntary Incentives Program. It's voluntary, and it provides financial compensation for participating landowners to incentivize their participation.

Cross says she looks forward to replanting many of her trees that fell down in recent storms.

The Eugene Water & Electric Board is developing the pilot project that's attracted Cross's interest. Landowners would be paid for EWEB to have access to a small swath of land near the river. That swath would then managed for the landowners to improve or maintain the habitat.

EWEB's Karl Morgenstern says riverside vegetation provides natural filtration, and native plants shade the water to help keep it cool.

It's an idea that seems to be gaining traction among clean-water professionals and land owners. But will the program actually improve or maintain water quality? And how will we know?

A similar program is already underway along the Rogue River near the Southern Oregon city of Medford. The Rogue is the water source for Medford and other nearby communities.

The river was at risk of becoming too warm for salmon and falling short of federal clean-water standards. Medford considered installing two chillers to cool the water. That would have cost about $15 million.

Instead, Medford launched a program in 2012 that pays between $100 and $300 per acre for easements from landowners to plant trees on their property. The $8 million cost for the program is just more than half that of the chillers.

The idea is that the additional shade will cool the water -– a natural solution to a manmade problem. Cooler water could mean a Rogue River Basin with higher water quality for its residents and better salmon spawning conditions.

Notable supporters include President Barack Obama, who spoke about the program at the White House Conservation Conference in 2012.

“They decided to pay farmers and ranchers to plant trees along the banks of the river — and that helped to cool the water at a fraction of the cost. It worked for business; it worked for farmers; it worked for salmon,” Obama said.

But even within conservation circles, not everyone agrees with Obama's assessment that Medford's water-cooling strategy is actually working.

“It has a lot of rhetorical weight. Does President Obama know the details of Oregon’s trading for Medford or any other trade? No,” said Nina Bell, executive director of the non-profit Northwest Environmental Advocates.

The Medford program is called a water quality trading system. Computer models measure cooling that results from the added shade along the 30-mile stretch of the Rogue River where more trees are being planted. That cooling is then "traded" to the City of Medford. It’s similar to carbon trading, where offsets are purchased by industrial polluters.

Bell’s organization has critiqued the program and questioned its efficacy. Northwest Environmental Advocates is also pushing the federal government to critically evaluate the program.

Bell says it isn’t effective and the results are really hard to track.

“Some people are saying that trading is sort of the salvation, trading is the way we’re going to restore Oregon’s temperatures to temperatures cold-water fish can use, and that’s simply flat-out wrong,” Bell said. “None of these trades have demonstrated that they are actually cooling anybody’s water.”

Bell says her group isn't saying that streamside vegetation can't help keep water cooler and healthier for fish and other aquatic life. She argues that such a program should be more comprehensive -- not just put to use on private property were landowners decide to go along.

“We basically need to have laws and rules that require all landowners, not just some, to protect the water quality of Oregon’s public waters,” she said.

Proponents, however, say the approach in Medford is already yielding positive results and saving money compared to the cost of large-scale technology-based solutions.

The Freshwater Trust helped develop the programs for the Rogue and McKenzie rivers. Alex Johnson works for the non-profit conservation group.

He’s confident that the benefits of the Rogue River program’s cooling program can be proven -- and that it will happen soon enough to keep Medford from violating clean-water standards.

“There’s plenty of time for these projects to develop and be providing the shade well before, or around the same time, that their exceedance may come into play,” Johnson said.

Johnson says the focus in Medford is restoration of the Rogue River. But the McKenzie River program is more about conservation. In other words, it will keep fairly healthy streamside habitat in good shape.

Johnson added that “it’s really exciting for us to be looking at the other side of the coin, as opposed to just straight restoration — but really looking at incentivizing conservation as well.”

Along both the Rogue and the McKenzie rivers, the goal is to rely more on what Johnson calls "natural infrastructure" to heal watersheds and protect water quality. He says that kind of infrastructure represents a smart investment.

“Natural infrastructure only gets more valuable. Every other type of asset depreciates,” he explained.

Back on the McKenzie River, Craig Burns is a hazelnut farmer with a career of experience managing natural resources for federal environmental agencies. He said he's supportive of the Eugene Water & Electric Board's Voluntary Incentives Program. But after five decades of managing his family’s land, he isn’t ready to have someone else do that for him.

“Eventually the day will come when I won’t want to be down here pulling ivy and scotch broom — but I want to do it as long as I can,” Burns said.

The program on the McKenzie River will launch on pilot sites this fall. The full program roll-out is expected in 2015.

OPB's Amelia Templeton contributed to this report.

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Devan Schwartz