By William Kennedy

Oregon’s greatest natural resources may be its waterways. With more than 50 rivers crisscrossing the state, plus countless streams, creeks, tributaries, and wetlands, Oregon boasts more federally recognized wild and scenic bodies of water than anywhere else in the country. Protecting our rivers and nearby habitats are watershed councils, and as climate change accelerates and populations increase, the work of these volunteer-driven organizations is more urgent than ever.

Underscoring the value of Oregon’s waterways is Lane County. Eugene and Springfield are positioned near the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers, two of the state’s largest. The McKenzie, in fact, is Eugene-Springfield’s only source for drinking water, and the river is also a nationally recognized outdoor destination. For these reasons alone, maintaining the health of Lane County’s waterways is clearly important. 

The Oregon legislature set the framework for watershed council formation in 1995, with House Bill 3441. Oregon’s unusual network of watershed councils is among the most active and well-supported in all the U.S.

Dov Weinman is executive director of the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council. Formed in 2007, this council covers the Springfield, Oakridge, Westfir, Waldo Lake, and Willamette Pass areas. Weinman says these non-governmental, community-based councils are flexible, and that’s part of their value. 

McKenzie Watershed Council executive director Jared Weybright agrees. The value in watershed councils is that they are “bottom-up organizations that work to build at a grassroots level,” he says.

“They’re place-based organizations to drive and organize and implement voluntary and collaborative projects in a non-regulatory framework,” Weybright adds. 

The U.S. Geological Survey defines a watershed — sometimes called a drainage basement or catchment — as “an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel.”

Watersheds can be small areas such as a single lake, or span hundreds of miles. The largest watershed in the United States is the Mississippi River Watershed, which drains from all or part of 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Today, there are four watershed councils in Lane County, part of a region known as the Willamette Basin. Joining the McKenzie and Middle Fork Willamette groups are the Coast Fork Willamette and Long Tom watershed councils. The McKenzie is the oldest watershed council in the state. And because water does not conform to human-made borders and boundaries, these groups must work closely together. 

Each watershed council has similar goals but its own structure and geographically distinct focus. Watershed councils help local partners work together to identify district priorities — such as coho salmon on the Oregon Coast, spring Chinook salmon in the Willamette Valley, oak habitat in Southern Oregon, or sage grouse habitat in Eastern Oregon — explains Weybright.

Middle Fork’s Weinman says beyond wildfire recovery and community engagement, his organization’s two main areas of focus are education and habitat restoration. 

“We work with informal and formal educators to create more accessible place-based education,” to get students out of the classroom, to state parks, public lands, and county parks, Weinman says. The goal is to establish a stepping stone for students toward landscape stewardship.

McKenzie Watershed’s Weybright says wildfire recovery is now his organization’s primary focus, much like other watershed councils. The McKenzie area is still recovering from the devastating 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, which raced across the McKenzie River Valley in the Willamette National Forest. 

All over the West, wildfire intensity is only expected to increase. Wildfires such as the Holiday Farm Fire have “fundamentally changed our organization,” Weybright says. Last year alone, his council, in tandem with other organizations, replanted close to half a million trees on more than 100 acres across that many sites.

“To put that in perspective, pre-fire, a big planting season for us would be like 20 acres on one or two sites,” Weybright says. “It’s an enormous collaborative effort of which we’re quite proud.” 

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