The Upper Willamette

MISSION OF THE BASIN: Collaboratively work with stakeholders to improve water quality and streamside forests.

The rich blue waters of the McKenzie River quietly flow through western Oregon toward the Willamette Valley. Since 2012, the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission and The Freshwater Trust have partnered to restore streamside forests along this river and its tributaries. We recently expanded the program to restoration along the Middle Fork Willamette and Coast Fork Willamette. This water quality trading program plants native trees and shrubs along streambanks to help the utility comply with its wastewater permit under the Clean Water Act. As the plants grow at each restored site, their shade blocks solar load (sunlight), which generates credits for the utility and helps keep the stream cool for native fish. The plants also filter sediment and excess nutrients from reaching the stream and improve terrestrial habitat.

After five pilot projects, the full program received regulatory approval and new planting sites throughout the Upper Willamette basin are underway in 2023. TFT manages the credits the program generates that keep the MWMC in compliance, while on-the-ground implementation is led by local watershed councils and other restoration practitioners. Together, this coalition works to ensure that restoration plantings are put in the right place to complement the efforts of adjacent restoration and conservation programs for maximum uplift. In this way, the watershed benefits from local expertise and more of the funding stays in the community. Once implementation is complete in 2027, this program will be the largest water quality trading program that TFT has executed, with shade plantings at as many as 30 sites. This approach — combining TFT’s knowledge of process, analytics and program-building with the place-based expertise of local partners — demonstrates a viable method to scale up and fix more rivers faster.

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Old- and medium-growth forests provide a dense canopy cover and a layer of rich organic material on the ground that nourishes smaller plants such as ferns. The organic material acts as a natural filter for water that moves through the watershed, cleaning it as it flows to rivers and streams below. Forests also shade snowpack, controlling the rate at which it melts and flows year-round. Additionally, forests and riparian vegetation can reduce soil erosion; retain sediment, pollutants and excessive nutrients; add woody material necessary for cold-water fish spawning and resting habitats; and regulate water temperature to keep the aquatic ecosystem in balance.

The MWMC assesses its investment in the thermal load mitigation project based on the best overall value for the triple bottom line – community, economy and environment. To get the best return for its ratepayers, while also creating environmental benefit, the MWMC has used some streamlined financing options for its capital improvement projects, including an Oregon Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan with sponsorship option--a reduced interest rate loan for combined capital project with qualifying watershed project—along with bond funds.

EWEB ratepayer funds and grants from the state provided funding for the Pure Water Partnership (PWP)* pilot project. A Watershed Conservation Fund is being built now to plug in diverse funding sources to a sustainable fiscal management system. Financing will come from sources such as EWEB protection funds, credit sales to MWMC, US Forest Service timber stewardship contracting, City of Eugene carbon offset investments, business sponsorships, and state grants.

*The PWP was previously known as the Voluntary Incentives Program (VIP).

To address future requirements in its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and potential temperature exceedances, the MWMC launched a pilot program to demonstrate the viability and cost-effectiveness of a water quality trading program for thermal load compliance.

The MWMC discharges to the upper Willamette River just upstream of the confluence with the McKenzie River. The upper Willamette is part of the Willamette River Basin, potentially governed by a pending temperature Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) with criteria to protect salmon spawning and rearing habitat, and credits would be used to more than offset future temperature inputs resulting from this discharge.

To secure regulator-approved temperature credits, the MWMC contracted with The Freshwater Trust to restore streamside vegetation at priority sites on the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers. One site was on public land on the Springfield Mill Race, and The Trust secured leases for two privately-owned sites on Cedar Creek. Sites were cleared of invasive plant species and replanted with roughly 10,000 native trees and shrubs. Willamette Partnership validated water quality trading credits and registered them for the MWMC in the Counting on the Environment database, following third-party verification of modeled credits and on-site conditions. The pilot successfully demonstrated the feasibility of a “green infrastructure” approach to reduce thermal loading and provide a compliance solution. The MWMC is preparing to generate additional credits by contracting for additional nonpoint source restoration sites.

Central to the PWP is assessing the quality of the riparian areas for interested landowners. The Freshwater Trust and partners developed protocols for assessing riparian forest quality using GIS desktop analysis and on-the-ground field surveys. Analysis using these protocols compares conditions on landowner sites to metrics collected from reference sites of healthy riparian areas. The resulting score for the quality of the landowner riparian area highlights recommended actions they can take to increase the health of these critical areas.

The Freshwater Trust’s StreamBank Monitoring app was used for digitally collecting survey data and compiling it for analysis and reporting. StreamBank Monitoring is part of a patented toolkit for watershed restoration planning, monitoring and tracking. StreamBank allows municipalities, utilities and conservation partners to better understand the economic and environmental returns of restoration projects.

Effective partnerships play an important role in EWEB’s source protection program. The PWP is designed to build on existing organizations and efforts, leverage and align existing funding sources, and develop programmatic approaches and infrastructure that allows actions on the ground to scale up and meet multiple goals. Examples of this include using existing expertise from the McKenzie Watershed Council and Upper Willamette SWCD to conduct riparian assessments, and develop and implement management plans.

As a result, these organizations are now seeing more consistent funding, have many new landowner clients, and are working to support each other. Lane Council of Governments is managing GIS and other data that feed a watershed health dashboard, which plays to the Council's existing strengths as a regional GIS support organization. Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development has the financial management capacity and expertise to handle fiscal management of these multiple funding sources. The Freshwater Trust is building on and adapting its StreamBank technology to allow efficient collection of riparian metrics and scoring that support protection or restoration decisions and selection of best fit for funding.

An integrated water resources management approach in the watershed promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources to maximize the resulting economic and environmental benefits. This approach can create solutions implemented at a large-enough scale that is meaningful for watershed protection.

For EWEB, taking an integrated water resource management approach involved a wide range of partners and stakeholders in the design of the PWP that has helped to create a robust pilot program that is both scientifically sound and reflective of the needs and interests of all parties. Engaging landowners and customers in the process increases the level of buy-in as EWEB moves forward with the program. The results of this approach will provide greater watershed resiliency in the face of uncertainty around the impacts of a changing climate with more volatile weather patterns and declining snow pack.

The MWMC's Todd Miller says, "Rather than our relationship to the environment being through a single pipe to the river, we are becoming more fully integrated into the environment and solving issues of drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, and aquatic habitat holistically under the 'one water' mindset."