Another Oregon utility selects The Freshwater Trust to help protect water quality

April 30, 2019

SPRINGFIELD, OREGON – April 30, 2019 – The Freshwater Trust (TFT) signed an agreement with the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission (MWMC) of Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, to implement an innovative restoration program that ensures warm water discharged from the community’s wastewater treatment plant doesn’t negatively impact the cold-water environments needed by native fish species.

TFT will help the MWMC select dozens of the best sites to replant streamside vegetation along the McKenzie River and its tributaries to provide shade, efficiently and cost-effectively offsetting the temperature impacts of the treatment plant. The amount of sun blocked by the newly planted trees and shrubs will be quantified, turned into credits, and allow the MWMC to achieve and maintain compliance with the Clean Water Act (CWA).

This approach is known as a “water quality trading program” (WQT) and the MWMC’s program will be the fifth that TFT has led for compliance in the Northwest. In 2012, TFT partnered with the City of Medford to implement a nationally recognized trading program in the Rogue River basin, and in that same year, worked for Portland General Electric to offset temperature impacts from the Port of St. Helens.

Over the last several years, TFT has also worked with the Idaho Power Company to develop a large-scale watershed compliance program in the Snake River Basin. And in 2018, TFT signed a contract with the City of Ashland to generate a WQT program that will yield additional restoration projects in the Rogue River basin.

“TFT’s deep knowledge of water quality trading rules, the ability to navigate the regulatory landscape, and their proven capability as an environmental steward are key reasons we selected them as a partner,” said Todd Miller, environmental analyst with the City of Springfield. “What they’re able to offer is a full suite of services that are required to go forward with such a solution.”

The MWMC and TFT first collaborated on a pilot of the program, which led to three restoration sites planted and verified between 2013 and 2016. TFT continues to maintain and monitor the pilot sites.

“The MWMC was very proactive in their approach,” said Tim Wigington, finance director with TFT. “Long before they had to come up with a solution, they wanted to test out new ways of looking at the problem, and really understand how those ‘green compliance’ options would work, and what they would cost. Their initial willingness to think outside the box was the catalyst for this program.”

An additional catalyst is the pairing of the MWMC’s program with the regional drinking water protection program, called Pure Water Partners (PWP). The PWP compensates landowners for protecting healthy riparian forests while also encouraging restoration of degraded areas.

“The MWMC and PWP programs share geography and closely intertwined goals,” said Olivia Duren, riparian analyst with TFT. “This collaboration is a model of watershed-level management that other watersheds should look to for instruction and inspiration, and a model for how to leverage a WQT program to help achieve even greater gains.”

Before anything is planted, TFT will employ modeling to analyze the places where restoration will have the greatest impact and be the most cost effective. TFT then helps the MWMC package up those benefits so that they are consistent with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality regulations and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies associated with trading.

“We are hearing from more and more cities that are willing to explore innovative restoration options for meeting their temperature compliance under the Clean Water Act,” said Alex Johnson, Freshwater Fund Director with TFT. “We’re proud that now five major utilities are entrusting us to do that and know that these programs offer bigger environmental upsides in comparison to some of the other options.”

Under the CWA, a city or any point source of pollution can offset its temperature impacts and protect water quality by using grey infrastructure options, such as a cooling tower or a holding pond, which both chill the water before it is discharged back into the river. Some facilities may also explore efficient reuse of the water.

“But when you plant trees, you’re also sequestering carbon, helping improve pollinator habitat and habitat for native fish species, preventing bank erosion, and filtering runoff,” said Johnson. “These benefits are much more meaningful for the resource.”

The McKenzie is a tributary of the Willamette River and drains 1,300 square miles of western Oregon. It is a primary drinking water source and recreation resource for the city of Eugene and supports vibrant populations of Chinook, cutthroat and rainbow trout.

“Enhancing the cold-water environment of the Willamette River system through watershed restoration, including riparian shade restoration, has been recognized as one of the most ecologically effective means of temperature compliance,” said Miller. “But what’s also important is that this option makes financial sense.”

Chillers and storage lagoons can cost millions of dollars just to build , whereas natural infrastructure alternatives are often the lowest cost alternative over time.

“This factor has always allowed the solutions we propose to be viable,” said Wigington. “We care about the bottom line for cities, for individuals, for landowners. For us, the environmental solutions we design need to make economic sense too. This is how they become lasting and scalable, and we are in the business of building change that lasts.”