In 2008, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the nonprofit Meyer Memorial Trust joined forces to launch the Willamette Special Investment Partnership, a far-reaching initiative aimed at bringing back some of the long-lost natural features of a river that winds through the most heavily developed part of the state.

Recognizing the need for sustained effort, the partnership offered something that had never been tried before in the Willamette: a 10-year funding commitment to support long-term restoration projects in the river’s main channel, historic floodplain and major tributaries.

In 2010, the Bonneville Power Administration joined the initiative (which has since been renamed the Willamette Focused Investment Partnership), multiplying its financial clout. Together, the three partners have pumped an estimated $81.6 million into the effort to date.

A variety of conservation organizations responded to the cash infusion with a flood of grant proposals, and the results have been encouraging.

But now the partnership’s initial 10-year commitment is winding down and some of its major funding sources are beginning to dry up, leaving conservationists scrambling to find new funding partners or risk losing the momentum they’ve built up over a decade of work.

“Even 10 years is a mere blip in the life of a river system,” noted Allison Hensey of the Meyer Memorial Trust. “This needs to be a much longer-term, intentional commitment.”

Big river, big vision

Flowing 187 miles from Eugene to Portland, the Willamette is the 19th-largest river by volume in the United States. Its fertile floodplain has been a focal point for human settlement throughout the history of Oregon, and today more than 2.5 million people — roughly 70 percent of the state’s population — live in the Willamette River watershed.

All those people have placed heavy demands on the Willamette, withdrawing water for drinking, irrigation and industrial purposes and using the river as a conduit for sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial waste.

To protect against erosion, the channel has been straightened and hardened with riprap revetments, cutting the river off from many of its historic flood channels and restricting its natural ability to change course.

And a system of 13 federal dams on the Willamette’s major tributaries, built during the mid-20th century to control flooding, store water and generate electricity, has altered the river’s ecology and created enormous obstacles for native fish populations, especially anadromous species such as salmon and steelhead that must travel back and forth between their headwaters spawning grounds and the sea.

Huge strides have been made in improving water quality since the 1960s, when intensive media coverage focused national attention on pollution in the Willamette. Nevertheless, some fish runs remained in rough shape, and by the early 2000s conservation efforts had shifted toward improving conditions for fish by returning portions of the river to a more natural state.

But doing that kind of work on a river system as large and heavily developed as the Willamette was a daunting challenge, and one that only a handful of hardy souls were willing to tackle. Then the Willamette Special Investment Partnership sprang into being and fundamentally altered the restoration funding landscape.

“That was a game-changer,” Hensey said. “Now we have over 20 floodplain restoration projects that are either finished or underway on the mainstem.”

According to progress reports published by the funding partners, more than 3,900 acres of floodplain and riparian forest have been replanted, 15.5 miles of side channels have been reconnected to the floodplain, 23 fish passage barriers have been removed or improved, 18 miles of in-stream habitat have been restored and 46 acres of wetlands have been enhanced or treated.

That doesn’t include the extensive work that has been done to improve habitat and water quality in seven major Willamette tributaries through the partnership’s Model Watershed Program.

But the Meyer Memorial Trust’s portion of the partnership — which the foundation refers to as the Willamette River Initiative — is scheduled to sunset in March 2019.

“We have a little less than a year and a half now to go,” Hensey said.

Bridging the gap

That deadline should not come as a surprise to anyone. Meyer was clear from the outset that it did not intend to keep pumping money into the Willamette initiative indefinitely, and it has already begun taking steps to plan for the day when it no longer is an active funding partner.

The trust recently convened a group of stakeholders to kick off a yearlong planning process aimed at identifying an entity that could pick up the torch from Meyer, in terms of both funding and leadership. To help the new organization get up and running, Meyer’s board of trustees has pledged to provide $2 million in startup funding between 2019 and 2023.

“It’s building a bridge to the future,” Hensey said.

But Hensey doesn’t necessarily expect the new entity, whatever it turns out to be, to solve the funding problem all by itself.

Since the beginning of the Willamette Special Investment Partnership, one of the objectives has been to build capacity and foster cooperation among the land trusts, watershed councils and other nonprofits doing on-the-ground restoration projects in the basin.

That work, Hensey believes, has paid off by strengthening the conservation groups and putting them in a better position to carry on the work with less outside support.

“That’s enabled us to make progress toward our goals, but it’s also built a sense of community that’s really exciting to see,” she said. “We’re seeing all kinds of collaborations I don’t think we would have seen 10 years ago.”

Adaptive management

That increased level of cooperation is reflected in the program’s name, which the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board changed from Willamette Special Investment Partnership to Willamette Focused Investment Partnership in 2015.

Under the old SIP model, individual organizations were invited to compete for grant funds, pitting one against another. The FIP program was designed to encourage a collaborative approach to river restoration projects around the state.

The Willamette FIP is built around the Willamette Mainstem Anchor Habitat Working Group, formed from a coalition of conservation organizations. The working group’s job is to prioritize restoration projects that build on previous work in the basin — particularly in environmentally critical stretches of the river that have been identified as “anchor habitats” — and that put a premium on collaboration.

Eric Hartstein, OWEB’s senior policy coordinator, believes the new approach has paid big dividends for the river.

“I think what’s been accomplished in the last eight to 10 years is really ramping up the scope and scale of restoration in the Willamette,” he said.

“I think what we’re seeing today are much more complex projects, sometimes involving multiple partners, that either weren’t happening a decade ago or were happening on a much smaller scale.”

Like Meyer, OWEB went into the Willamette initiative with a 10-year funding commitment. The state agency, which gets a dedicated share of lottery proceeds to benefit salmon and other native fish species, has already extended that commitment by an additional two years, through 2021.

It’s unclear, however, if OWEB funding for restoration work in the Willamette will continue beyond that point. The agency is ultimately bound by decisions made in the Oregon Legislature, which operates on a two-year budget cycle, making long-range financial forecasting all but impossible.

“There’s a lot of discussion around how to create sustainable funding around restoration,” said Andrew Dutterer, partnerships coordinator for the Willamette FIP.

“I think the FIP program gives us some assurances there … but it’s hard to think very long-term.”

Building a legacy

The Bonneville Power Administration was drawn into the river restoration effort through its role in the marketing and distribution of electricity generated by the network of 13 federal hydropower dams in the Willamette Basin.

In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service each issued biological opinions (known as BiOps for short) obligating BPA to shore up threatened anadromous fish runs in the Willamette. A program was developed to implement the BiOps, creating a funding stream of about $700,000 a year to help pay for restoration projects.

In 2010, BPA reached an agreement with the state of Oregon to make up for some of the environmental harm caused by the dams by protecting and restoring 26,537 acres of fish and wildlife habitat in the basin by 2025.

“We have a responsibility to mitigate impact on fish and wildlife habitat,” said Dorie Welch, former manager of BPA’s Willamette Habitat Protection and Restoration Program.

Altogether, the federal power marketing agency has budgeted $144 million to meet that responsibility, and a big chunk of the money spent to date — roughly 50 percent, according to one BPA executive — has gone into projects tied to Willamette River restoration.

“I feel like we’re making some really good progress,” Welch said. “Being able to leverage those three funding sources together — BPA, OWEB and Meyer — has enabled restoration partners in the basin to take on some bigger projects than they would otherwise have been able to do.”

Welch and other BPA leaders interviewed for this story said they believe the agency will continue to provide some level of funding for Willamette restoration even after its initial commitment ends. And, like officials with Meyer and OWEB, they believe that the spirit of cooperation forged among conservation groups, government agencies and charitable foundations during the partnership’s first decade will continue to serve the river for years to come.

“That kind of collaboration is invisible to the general public, but it’s been really strong in the restoration effort,” said Lorri Bodi, BPA’s vice president for environment, fish and wildlife.

“I don’t have a crystal ball in terms of who’s going to be funding what in 2025, but I do know we’ve stepped this up,” she added.

“Post-2025, that legacy will still be there.”

Uncertain future

Dan Bell hopes that's the case, but he has some concerns.

"It is an interesting time" for the Willamette restoration effort, Bell said, "particularly as Meyer has their initiative sunset after next year."

Bell spent seven years as Willamette basin projects director for The Nature Conservancy, overseeing the purchase and restoration of the 1,300-acre Willamette Confluence site near Springfield. Now he serves as Willamette strategic partnerships director for the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, an independent nonprofit that receives some of its funding from both BPA and Meyer.

He is deeply embedded in the Willamette restoration effort, which the Bonneville Environmental Foundation supports with both funding and staff time. He also leads the Willamette Mainstem Anchor Habitat Working Group, the coalition that plans and executes major restoration projects for the Willamette FIP.

He's cautiously optimistic about the future of restoration in the basin, primarily because of ongoing funding commitments from OWEB and BPA. But those sources, too, could dry up eventually, and Bell believes now is the time to plan for that eventuality.

"Those two things will continue to fund projects (for the next few years) but there's obviously a big gap when a funder like Meyer steps back," he said.

"So while I don't foresee a cliff I guess I do see a hill — and there's lots of people trying to figure out how to approach that."

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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