Watershed councils taking action, survey shows


CORVALLIS - While state and national debates rage about water resource and fishery issues, a grass-roots movement of more than 80 "watershed councils" around Oregon is quietly compiling a steady record of success in cleaning up streams, protecting riparian zones and improving fish habitat.

A new survey of these watershed councils by the Forestry Extension Program at Oregon State University found they often had concerns about inadequate funding or administrative coordination. But despite that they were moving ahead with concrete, "on the ground" activities including fencing streams, planting trees and surveying streams and habitat.

Along the southern coast of Oregon, about 150 miles of fencing has been installed on several streams to help keep out cattle, and 100,000 trees have been planted to nurture and restore the riparian zone. Another group in eastern Oregon near LaGrande is working with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to develop a water quality management plan.

In collaboration with the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Goose Lake Fishes working group near Lakeview has built "alcoves," or small side pools in streams, to improve fish habitat. And in many groups around the state, private landowners, environmental advocates and management agencies are simply sitting down at the same table and talking - a phenomenon that didn't always happen in the past.

"The bottom line is that these watershed councils are getting things done," said Mark Rickenbach, a graduate research assistant in the OSU College of Forestry. "There are real concerns about funding and administration, but accomplishments are being made."

The survey was conducted, Rickenbach said, so that OSU's College of Forestry, Extension program and other academic units could improve the design and content of courses, seminars and programs the university offers to help people working in natural resource management achieve their goals, especially through its new Watershed Stewardship Education Program.

According to Rickenbach, the survey found that about 92 percent of these watershed councils are recognized by the government under provisions of recent Oregon legislation, and more than 90 percent have clear mission statements to guide their actions.

More than half of them require unanimous agreement before a project or other action is approved, the analysis showed.

Many have done watershed assessments and about half have completed, or are working on a watershed action plan. Besides project formation or completion, the survey also indicated that the groups considered their very existence and continued operation to be a significant accomplishment.

"For some councils, bringing people to the table or surviving another year were significant milestones," Rickenbach said. "Others focused on building alliances between the councils and other local entities, such as government, associations and landowners."

The study identified a total of 110 barriers to future or continued success. Among them:


  • About 20 percent of the problems cited were financial, as the councils lacked either initial or continued funding for their projects, outreach programs and administration.


  • Another 20 percent of the concerns focused on the need to improve administrative capacity, which sometimes meant hiring a coordinator to facilitate day-to-day operations.


  • Other problems included the need for more project-oriented action, expanding council membership, concern about legal liability, more outreach and education in the community, and technical needs such as expertise on estuary management or culvert placement.