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A River Runs Through It

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Scientists and stakeholders are looking at possible futures for Oregon's most populated basin.

When OSU fisheries biologist Stan Gregory walks along Oregon's Willamette River he looks beyond the channel and the bank. The French have a different notion about a river, Gregory says. They talk about the minor river and the major river. The flowing channel: That's the minor river. The major river encompasses the floodplain and its channel. These days Gregory likes to talk about and study the "major" river with all its parts: the channel, the floodplain and the gallery forest. But he doesn't stop there. He and colleagues from Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, the Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Washington are also interested in the vegetation, the fish and wildlife, and the people who live on and use all the lands that drain into Willamette River basin.

Willamette River in 1847.

A vision of yesterday: This 1847 painting by Canadian Paul Kane of a scene south of Oregon City hangs in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Its creatively spelled name is "The Walhamette River from a Mountain." Art courtesy: Royal Ontario Museum

The Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Research Consortium, a multidisci- plinary team of researchers, is taking a broad, ecosystem level look at the entire Willamette River watershed: all 11,478 square miles of it. For five years the EPA-funded team led by OSU's Gregory, Dave Hulse at the University of Oregon, Joan Baker at the EPA and Rick Edwards at the University of Washington will look back and ahead at what the future holds for this place pioneers called "Eden at the end of the trail."

The consortium project, a novel blend of landscape planning and natural science, is an outgrowth of the President's Northwest Forest Plan and EPA's interest in ecological risk assessment research. The agency wanted to focus on areas with multiple owners and multiple land uses. The EPA asked Oregon officials where they would like the research done. They said the Willamette Basin.

In the 150 years since settlement, the basin has undergone dramatic change. Follow the I-5 corridor and you'll see. Interstate 5, the West Coast's main north-south highway, ushers thousands of motorists every day through the 180-mile-long Willamette River Basin. From the north end of the valley at Portland south through Oregon's premier agricultural area, the superhighway delivers drivers to other urban centers that border the Willamette River: Salem and Eugene. Today, the basin is home to nearly 70 percent of Oregon's population.

Willamette River.

The river today north of Oregon City. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

If you traveled the same route from Portland to Eugene in 1850, what would you see? Few people live in this thick fir forest at the north end of the Willamette Basin at Portland. Upriver, past Newberg, the landscape shifts to scattered oak savannas or prairies with a riverside forest of cottonwood and ash. South of Albany, what the Kalapooya Indians called the Wal-lamt, or "green river," abandons a defined channel and spreads, sloshing back and forth into a huge wetland. "Where farmers," Gregory says, "worked six days a week digging ditches to drain the land and farm it."

The impact of population growth and the resulting land use has been felt throughout the entire ecosystem. Water pollution has been a major concern: first in the 1930s, when raw sewage and industrial wastes were routinely dumped in the river, followed by problems with harder-to-detect dioxins, DDT and other pesticides and herbicides.

Man standing in front of the Willamette River.

"We took what was a complex, braided (river) system and turned it into a pipe," says OSU fisheries biologist Stan Gregory, another leader of the EPA-funded consortium's Willamette Basin project. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The landscape has changed, too. Only 25 to 35 percent of floodplain forest remains. The southern end of the river has lost 60 percent of the channel area and 60 to 80 percent of the islands. "We took what was a complex, braided system and turned it into a pipe," Gregory says. A photo album of basin history does not exist. But consortium scientists are working to paint a detailed picture of the basin's ecological past and create a scientific album that will help Oregonians make informed decisions about their future.

Covering everything from vegetation and channel history to population trends and land use, the Willamette Basin Planning Atlas is a kind of primer for predicting the ecological consequences of possible policies and decisions related to changes in the human population. It's the first product of the consortium and the core of land use planning research.

"Our challenge," Gregory says, "was to look at trajectories of ecosystem change from 1850 to the present, then look at alternative future scenarios to 2050." Gregory and others studied maps of the river. The General Land Office first surveyed the entire river in the years after 1850. In 1895 and 1932 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resurveyed the length of the river. Each time, the survey maps showed changes in the channel and the river network. Surveyor notes provided a record of floodplain vegetation. The survey line started in Portland.

Willamette Valley farmlands.

A swatch of the Willamette River Basin, or watershed, southwest of Portland. Scientists from many disciplines and several institutions who belong to the Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Research Consortium are studying the entire basin's history and working with citizens representing various land uses and types of ownership to develop "scenarios" for the future. Photo: Bob Rost

"The surveyors would go along the survey line grids; every time they crossed a wet spot or a big tree they'd note it," Gregory says. They also wrote about channel conditions. The vegetation records gave researchers clues about habitat and the basis for generating a wildlife model for the basin at that particular time.

From the historical information, a portrait of the basin and changes over time began to emerge on the computer screens of the research team-a team of biologists, ecologists, hydrologists, demographers, bioresource engineers and economists.

"Trying to do things comprehensively is the only way to go," says Joan Baker, project officer for the EPA, "because if you're going to make decisions about how you want the valley or basin to change in the future you really ought to understand the full implications of what you're talking about."

Putting information in front of stakeholders is one aspect of applying science to real-world planning concerns. But including those stakeholders and their opinions in the research mix is what makes this project unique. In fact the scientific team will not try to predict the future. The scientists have stepped back. A group of stakeholders whose makeup reflects the multiple use and multiple ownership of the basin will consider its future. The 23 members from around the basin will come up with future scenarios-what David Hulse of the University of Oregon Landscape Architecture Department, another consortium leader, calls "alternative futures."

Man with large map in front of him.

Dave Hulse, chair of the University of Oregon's Department of Landscape Architecture, with a map of the Willamette River's flood history. He's a co-leader of the ecosystem-level Willamette project. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

At first, Gregory thought the scientists would come up with the scenarios. "We'd get data on population increase and these kind of things," he remembers, "and we'd project it into the future. But then Dave (Dave Hulse) says 'wellthat's almost right. We get that data, but we don't do the projections. We have stakeholders, people who are making these kind of decisions develop the scenarios.'"

The stakeholder group is as diverse as land use in the basin. At the first meeting last July, Hulse remembers, "They were curious. Some had their antennae up wondering if their ox was going to be gored."

"Most of the people I encounter check their guns at the door," says stakeholder John Miller. "They're looking at the big picture, not a narrow perspective," adds the vineyard owner, nursery operator and urban planner.

Another member of the group, OSU Extension forestry agent Rick Fletcher, likes working with all the players. "It's refreshing to get people around the table who never talk to each other to talk about the cumulative use of the landscape."

Man standing in front of a tall building.

The effort is "sobering," says Mike Houck of the Audubon Society, a member of the citizen panel developing Willamette Basin growth scenarios. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

During the next two years the group of farmers, foresters, environmental groups, planners and government decision makers will be asked to come up with three different scenarios for the basin. The first will be a planned trend or a status quo scenario. Two more will follow: one that takes a high conservation tack in terms of managing the landscape, development, fish, wildlife and water; and a third scenario that calls for a high level of development.

What if we keep doing what we're doing for the next 50 years with a population increase? That's the planned trend scenario, Gregory says. It's the first scenario the stakeholders and researchers will tackle. A projected population increase is a common element with all three scenarios. "When it comes to creating scenarios the bottom line," Hulse says, "is how many human beings are going to be living in the basin?"

In 1990 the census reported 1.9 million in the basin. By 2050 planners expect 3.9 million people to live in the watershed.

"Their (the stakeholders) first job will be to look at the population data and projects and decide where that urban growth boundary is going to go," Gregory says. "The stakeholders will have to draw the line, not the scientists." In doing so the group will have to consider both the ecological and economic consequences of their decisions. They'll consider their own interests and balance those with the others. They'll have to reach some kind of consensus. The group must decide what they want-things like water, urban space, agricultural and timberlands, urban green space-and where they want it.

Holding a deformed fish.

A Willamette River sucker with an eye missing. OSU fisheries researchers such as Randy Wildman, background, say they often find these bottom feeders with lesions or tumors in metropolitan Portland areas downstream from Newberg. Generally, the percentage of abnormalities drops as they go the other direction—upstream—studying fish. The question is why? Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The group will have to pinpoint where those land use decisions will occur in the basin, down to the quarter acre.

"We've already had an interesting lesson-actually putting population into those little squares," says stakeholder Mike Houck, an urban naturalist for the Audubon Society of Portland. "It's an amazing, sobering experience looking at the implications and the tradeoffs. What you give up. . .some farmland, green space, etc. It's a great learning opportunity."

Once that's decided, Hulse, a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) specialist, and his team of landscape planners will turn the group's scenario or what he describes as a written set of assumptions into a map. The graphics will be a visual reference: depicting the scenario as it unfolds at 10-year intervals during the next 50 years.

Future landscapes, or what land use patterns will be, are more designs than predictions, according to EPA's Joan Baker. The predictions will be the effects of those different scenarios on the basin's overall health. Researchers will evaluate the impact of each design. They'll look at it from the standpoints of biology, ecology, economics, demography and hydrology. For example, water is a critical one that figures into each scenario. Gregory points out water, not dollars and jobs, is the currency of the future.

Man standing in front of a greenhouse.

Urban planner John Miller of Salem also operates a nursery and owns a vineyard. He's a member of the panel of citizen "stakeholders" working with researchers to plan development scenarios for the next 50 years in the Willamette Basin. Most panel members look at "the big picture," Miller says. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The researchers' analysis of the water example will go something like this. The Oregon Water Resource department supplies the team with data on water availability from the 140 water sources in the Willamette watershed. The agency also provides information on current municipal, industrial and agricultural water use. Then, working with those individual sectors, researchers will plot future consumption rates month by month for the year 2050. Comparing the two, Gregory says, "will tell us where in the basin we hit dry spots and run out of water." That kind of a model helps stakeholders and decision makers see whether to "adjust the dials a bit one way or another" to affect watershed health.

"It's not like we're trying to find the perfect strategy," forestry agent Fletcher contends. "We want to look at the impact of different strategies. That's the strength of the process."

The Willamette Basin is a "watershed of concern" these days. The consortium work follows the Governor's Willamette River Basin Task Force and complements the Willamette River Restoration Initiative headed by OSU President Paul Risser.

Men fishing on the Willamette River.

Technicians and students from OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife use electro-shock gear to survey life in the Willamette River south of Portland. This is part of a Willamette River restoration project. The idea is to stun, and not kill, the creatures and haul them in for examination. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

"The consortium research will help us prioritize restoration work," Risser says, "where to spend time and money on restoration." Instead of responding to a regulation or a listing, he adds, "we can take a more prudent approach, a more balanced approach to selecting priorities." The overlapping OSU Willamette River restoration research project will also help set priorities for a big river system.

"The consortium provides the context for restoration," Gregory says. "With the Willamette Restoration project we want to develop an approach for screening restoration potential along the river. Can we screen and identify those places where we think we might get a greater richness in the fish community or plant community. . . and at the same time look at the demographic pressures and economic values along the river?"

What may be the ultimate outcome of consortium research, according to stakeholder John Miller, who grew up on a tributary of the Willamette, may also hold true for the other ongoing Willamette research activities. It's clear and simple. "We will better understand where we are and how we got there and how we can decide what to do."

Published in: Ecosystems