By Carrie Pak and Joel Cary, Water Resources Division Manager, TVWD

There are days when the thought of saving the earth is rather daunting because there is not any one thing alone that could heal our Mother Earth…but we can all think of one thing we could do to help. If every one of us took action to do that one thing every day to help, we might have a chance to avoid spiraling out of control. Let’s call this view “realistic optimism.” This is an idea that WSC supports when choosing our project, partners, and team members. We want to support investment in projects that build a better water future for people, natural habitats, and native species.

Some of you know that I (Carrie) recently joined WSC from the Tualatin Valley Water District (TVWD), the second largest water provider in Oregon, serving more than 225,000 people in the Washington County area. TVWD was formed in the early 90s by the merger of two smaller water districts, setting the stage for TVWD’s long-term approach to building regional partnerships.  Since that time, TVWD has been a wholesale customer to the City of Portland where it receives about 75% of its water demand. It’s also part owner of the Joint Water Commission, where the balance of its water supply is met. The difficulties of managing multiple sources of water are, at best, challenging but TVWD staff have mastered these challenges over the years. My hats off to the TVWD team, they really are second to none!

Dating back to 1972 when TVWD’s predecessors first acquired water rights on the Willamette River to more recently in 2013, when TVWD re-envisioned its future, it became clear that they needed a new, resilient supply to meet future regional water needs. Through engineering studies, historical water quality evaluations, and public outreach, TVWD eventually landed on the Mid-Willamette River as the best path forward. As TVWD started to develop more regional partnerships and engineer the necessary hard infrastructure, there was never a doubt that there would be the need for enhanced source water protection efforts. TVWD and its newly formed regional agency, the Willamette Intake Facilities (WIF) Commission, now had the formidable task of developing a source water protection program focused on the Willamette River.

Bound by the Cascade Mountain Range to the east and the Coast Range to the west, the Willamette River Basin is the largest watershed contained entirely within the state and drains over 11,487 square miles. That equates to nearly 12 percent of Oregon and is larger than the entire State of Massachusetts! The Willamette Basin upstream of the WIF Commission intake includes the major metropolitan areas of Eugene-Springfield and Salem-Keizer and is home to some of the most fertile production farmlands in Oregon as well as protected and commercial forest lands. Everyone involved knew from the start that the only way for an effective and implementable program was through collaboration from a wide variety of users in the Basin.

In November of 2021, a consultant team, which includes WSC was selected to begin development of the WIF Commission’s Watershed Protection, Monitoring, and Outreach Plan. The main elements of this work were broken into two separate phases with distinct sections, each designed to inform the next as a collaborative and organic approach to building a well thought out plan.

In general, the first phase will summarize the history and important characteristics of the Willamette River Basin, identify water quality risks and data gaps including long-term climate change risks, and develop a list of potential stakeholders for WIF Commission engagement. The second phase of work will include facilitated stakeholder meetings based on the outcomes of phase one, identify current financial programs and grants available to fund watershed protection, and evaluate monitoring technologies and relevant source water protection case studies as examples to learn from and utilize. Finally, all of these important elements will be brought into a final, comprehensive Watershed Protection, Monitoring, and Outreach Plan for the benefit of the Willamette River as a regional drinking water source.

As the WIF Commission partners, consultants, and stakeholders work to develop this program, I believe there is an underlying, three-pillar approach that should be considered in an effort of this scale and scope: 

  1. Protect and Preserve: Identify and preserve natural resources already in good condition
  2. Sustainable Progress: Develop standards for new capital projects, both private and public, that will result in meaningful progress, one step at a time
  3. Targeted Improvements: Through partnership-based efforts, identify and restore areas of the watershed that have been most impacted by development or other human caused influences

1. Protect and preserve

In a watershed as vast and diverse as the Willamette River Basin, there are areas that have been left relatively untouched by development and people. Several examples can be found in the upper watershed areas. One example is Waldo Lake, high in the Cascade Mountains and one of the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. Waldo Lake is a near pristine environment and considered one of the cleanest lakes in the entire world! You can consistently see more than 100 feet into the water given its outstanding water quality and lack of nutrients or other pollution.  While humans are allowed to recreate and enjoy camping along its shores, no motorized boats are allowed, despite multiple attempts to change the law. It’s tempting to think that changes like this won’t have an impact but given that so few of these untouched areas exist and the important roles they play in contributing to a healthy watershed, maintaining these areas is vitally important. Promoting awareness and advocacy are ways that we can ensure these resources are protected and preserved to highlight why Basin wide health is a holistic effort.

2. Sustainable Progress

For an example of sustainable progress, we can look back on when Clean Water Services – a storm and wastewater agency providing service to much of Washington County, Oregon – adopted the Low Impact Development Approaches (LIDA) Handbook in 2009. To say that our communities need to stop development is not a realistic pronouncement. Instead, it is completely realistic to imagine that with every new development and every new project, we can make it a little bit better than how we found it.   This project was created with this very idea in mind. The LIDA Handbook not only offered options to comply with stormwater management requirements, it also provided aesthetic features to urban development projects. The five objectives of LIDA are to 1) conserve existing resources, 2) minimize disturbance, 3) minimize soil compaction, 4) minimize imperviousness surfaces, and 5) direct runoff from impervious areas onto pervious areas.  Promoting these practical, real-world solutions to communities can create meaningful progress; one project, one step at a time. 

3. Targeted Improvements

A project that really exemplifies targets improvements, and one of my favorite restoration projects, is the Portland Community College Rock Creek Floodplain Enhancement Project. This project showed how coming together as a collective community with shared purpose can result in long-lasting, positive outcomes. It took decades for this 115-acre floodplain habitat to be degraded and, while the floodplain will never be exactly like it was before due to nearby roads and buildings, it will be rid of invasive reed canary grass and will continue to produce and function as an important food source for the fish and wildlife that call it home. While it will take many more years of ongoing care, the gradual transformation back to wet prairie, oak grove, and riparian forest is a beautiful process for nearby residents to enjoy.

Realistic Optimism, the WIF Commission, and our Future

I believe in a brighter environmental future for my kids, their kids, and the generations that will follow. I also strongly believe that an all or nothing approach may hinder our pursuit of a better future. While bold moves are necessary in this time of climate assault, waiting for someone else to take those bold moves while you make no change and do nothing differently is also irresponsible. As we work with our clients to develop the WIF Commission’s Watershed Protection, Monitoring, and Outreach Plan, we will collectively work to engage stakeholders about opportunities to preserve those resources that are still intact, work on promoting standards that continue to make sustained progress and find ways to partner with others on improving and restoring those resources that have been degraded over the years. All of this will be expensive in the long-term and the WIF Commission partners cannot do it alone; however I have a strong feeling that we will come together to support, promote, and implement a set of solutions to continue improving the Willamette River Basin’s health so future generations will be proud to call it their drinking water supply.