The Working Waters Initiative partners with communities and natural resource agencies to restore watershed health as a means of securing clean water for communities while improving freshwater habitat for fish and wildlife.
Many communities in the Pacific Northwest, from major cities in Puget Sound to small towns along the Oregon coast, rely upon “surface water” (rivers and streams) for their drinking water. Unfortunately, human development over the past 150 years has diminished stream and watershed health, which has, in turn, reduced the reliability of clean water for our citizens. Moreover, climate scientists tell us that changing conditions will make our water supplies much less predictable, with larger and more frequent floods and droughts. Water managers – especially those in small towns – find themselves pinched between meeting increasingly stringent regulatory requirements for water quality and a lack of financial resources to meet them.
The good news is that there are alternatives. Watershed restoration can be a cost-effective solution to improve water quality supplies.
Watershed restoration activities might include:
- Reconnecting a river to its floodplain to slow stream flow and restore specialized habitat for fish and wildlife
- Restoring beaver populations to increase groundwater recharge and biodiversity
- Removing or replacing undersized road culverts to reduce erosion and improve fish passage
- Protecting riparian environments to reduce water temperatures and filter nutrients
- Decommissioning obsolete or unused roads to reduce chronic erosion and the risk of potential slides
These types of practices serve to reestablish the natural form and function of stream and upland habitat. As a result, water quality can improve. For example, a channel re-meander or riparian planting slows the flow of water. Slower-moving waterways give sediment a chance to drop out before it reaches municipal intakes, reducing the amount of filtration and treatment required before it reaches your tap.
Some of our practices also increase short-term water storage and reestablish connections between surface water and groundwater. Both of these outcomes reduce the peak depth of floodwaters during storm events and can improve late-summer instream flows, critical concerns in the face of changing climate conditions.
Watershed restoration is also a cost-effective strategy for keeping drinking water treatment costs down. Money saved by avoiding additional “grey” infrastructure expenses can be put toward other community priorities. And, watershed restoration offers a means to revitalize local economies. Restoration projects put people to work and stimulate local economic activity. Studies by the University of Oregon show that an average of 80 cents of every dollar spent on habitat restoration stays in the county where the project is located, and restoration creates more new jobs than comparable investments in other sectors of our economy (see Hibbard and Lurie, 2006, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management).
Furthermore, unlike traditional “grey” infrastructure approaches, which may be very effective at meeting only a single goal, green infrastructure solutions work harder for us by creating a host of benefits for nature and people. Investments in green infrastructure can be a powerful tool to create immediate improvements in water quality and supply while also realizing benefits that reverberate throughout our region. Resulting improvements in upstream habitat and fish and wildlife populations create recreation and commercial opportunities for generations to come, ensuring that the Northwest remains the remarkable place we all love.