From its beginnings in the late 1990s, the Marys River Watershed Council has maintained a pretty low profile, working behind the scenes with willing landowners on a variety of water quality, habitat enhancement and environmental restoration projects but rarely getting much attention from the general public.
The council’s new executive director is looking to change that by expanding the group’s community engagement efforts.
“It’s essential to every grain and fiber of the work we do,” said Holly Purpura, who stepped into the director’s job in September after leading a similar organization in Morgantown, West Virginia, called Friends of Deckers Creek.
The Marys River Watershed Council is one of 59 such groups in Oregon, one of a handful of states to adopt a community-based model of protecting and restoring waterways. The groups receive financial support from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board but rely heavily on grants and donations to fund projects.
Along with education and restoration project manager Kathleen Westly, the council’s only other paid staffer, Purpura runs the operation from a small office in the Mater Building at 101 SW Western Blvd., about a block from the confluence of the Marys and Willamette rivers. The council has a nine-member board of directors and an active volunteer base of about 75 area residents.
Since starting her new job, Purpura said in a recent interview, she has been working to familiarize herself with the 300-square-mile watershed, which covers almost half of Benton County.
“It’s been great to learn about the wide variety of species across the watershed,” she said. “I’ve also had a chance to get my feet dirty and explore the Marys River.”
She’s also gotten up to speed on the various projects that were underway before her arrival.
The council is in the process of wrapping up a collaboration with more than a dozen landowners in the Wren area to enhance habitat for the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly and has applied for grants to improve fish passage in the Oak Creek drainage by replacing inadequate culverts.
In addition, the group is exploring the possibility of a culvert-replacement project in the middle and upper reaches of the Marys River basin.
Also underway is an effort to expand Classrooms Across Borders, a bilingual program in which local high school students work with area third-graders. The lessons, taught in Spanish, focus on commonalities between the Marys River basin and its “sister watershed,” the Rio Laja in central Mexico.
Since Purpura’s arrival, the council has also gotten involved in Trashy Thursdays, an extension of Willamette Riverkeeper’s River Guardians program.
Once a month, volunteers come together to remove garbage from the Willamette. Other partners in the effort include the Corvallis Parks & Recreation Department, the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department and the American Canoe Association.
The first area cleanup happened in November.
“We cleaned up an illegal dump in Willamette Park,” Purpura said. “We picked up close to 1,800 pounds of garbage.”
The next cleanup is scheduled for Feb. 14, when volunteers in boats will pick up trash along the river between the bridges in downtown Corvallis. (For details, see www.facebook.com/events/315598905732754.)
Next on Purpura’s to-do list: Starting a citizen science program similar to one she ran at her last job.
“It was such a successful program, and I think it could add a lot to our data-gathering as well as engaging the community,” she said.
In West Virginia, local volunteers were trained in using scientific probes to measure water quality factors such as temperature, pH level, dissolved oxygen and total dissolved solids. They passed on their findings to the Friends of Deckers Creek, which used the data to maintain a picture of the waterway’s overall health.
Volunteers who participated in that program also became a sort of citizens’ auxiliary, monitoring conditions in the watershed and reporting problems such as bank erosion as well as offering informed suggestions for restoration opportunities.
Purpura believes the same approach can work well in the Marys River watershed.
“The key is inspiring the community to lend a hand,” she said.
“There’s only so much two people can do, but with the community behind us, what we can accomplish expands greatly.”