Nonprofit helps rivers return to natural flows
By Abby Haight / The Oregonian
Published: September 25. 2009 4:00AM PST
PORTLAND — Lawrence Martin remembers from his boyhood how Evans Creek flowed like an artery in the Rogue River Valley — a deep, cold stream that gave life to salmon, steelhead and other species.
Then the forests upstream were clear-cut in the 1950s. Floods scoured out the channel and stripped the land of its topsoil. And, one summer, the creek went dry. Then it happened again. And again.
“I saw the ground losing productivity and I saw our water resources dwindling, saw Evans Creek fading,” said Martin, the third-generation owner of the J Diamond L, a ranch his grandfather founded.
A few years ago, he realized he couldn’t keep irrigating all of the 100 acres of hay he farmed. But today, that has changed. Evans Creek has a healthy flow again, thanks to an innovative program by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation that aims to recharge once-thriving Northwest streams.
The program, which acts similar to carbon offsets, essentially pays water-rights holders to leave the water in the stream. Because rights are based on a use-it-or-lose-it model, many users continue to draw water even if they don’t need it or their irrigation is ineffective, rather than lose their claim.
The program allows them to stop using the water without losing their rights — while being compensated. Any company or individual can purchase water restoration certificates from the foundation to offset their water footprint. The water rights holders in turn are paid to leave water in the stream.
The voluntary program’s first three customers have environmental ties — the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, the Natural Resources Defense Council and White Wave Foods, a Broomfield, Colo.-based company that produces organic milk and soy products. Bonneville hopes to eventually expand the program across the nation.
“Gone are the days when water is viewed as a free commodity,” said Ellen Feeney, vice president for responsible livelihood at White Wave Foods, which bought offsets for the 45,000 gallons of water used annually at its headquarters and plans to include its four manufacturing plants. “It’s a precious commodity. The issues around water are not just about cost. They can’t be. In some parts of the globe, it’s about availability — life and death issues.”
The water restoration program is young but already is showing improved fish habitat on Evans Creek, the Middle Deschutes River and the Prickly Pear Creek basin near Helena, Mont.
“The effect is very, very direct,” said Rob Harmon, the foundation’s chief innovation officer and senior vice president. It creates habitat where there was no habitat before. And the amazing thing about nature is when you give it a chance, it thrives.”
The independent, Portland-based nonprofit promotes renewable energy, watershed restoration and other programs that help individuals and businesses shrink their carbon footprints.
“We have a budding water crisis,” Harmon said. “We have companies that are looking seriously not just at their energy footprint or their carbon footprint, but at their water footprint. They’re doing a lot of conservation, but they still have a residual water footprint.”
According to the foundation, the average U.S. household uses 127,400 gallons of water annually, the equivalent of 127.4 water restoration certificates, which would sell for $127.40.
The foundation acts as a middleman, finding customers who want to buy certificates and negotiating leases with water-rights holders. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation approves the criteria for the certificate projects; water trust organizations, such as the Deschutes River Conservancy and The Freshwater Trust, lease the rights and do the on-the-stream work.
Martin, who signed a 29-year water-rights lease with The Freshwater Trust, took advantage of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Farms to Forests program and has planted about 7,000 ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees on his now non-irrigated acres. He hopes the cycle of timber crops will provide for his children and grandchildren as they reach retirement.
And the 70-year-old hopes to see Evans Creek, to which his family has held water rights since 1902, return to its natural flow.
“From the time I was a kid,” he said, “I thought of this place as sacred ground.”
Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2008