Geos Institute helps communities build resilience in the face of climate change
Teal text that spells Working Waters

About the Initiative

Over 1/2 of Oregonians and 1/3 of Washingtonians rely on streams and rivers for their drinking water, and these supplies are threatened on multiple fronts. From ageing infrastructure to a warming climate, water managers – especially those in small towns – have their hands full, and then some, with few financial resources to meet the challenges. To top it off, not many towns realize that upstream restoration can be a cost-effective and key component to their larger water management strategy.  

Our Working Waters Initiative grew out of our Freeways for Fish work. We partnered 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. The Initiative worked to: 

  • Build relationships between downstream communities and upstream land owners and restoration practitioners. Learn more about our Source Water Protection Workshops held in 2018 LINK 
  • Identify, implement, and monitor restoration activities in municipal watersheds to secure high-quality water supplies for communities while benefiting wildlife and the natural environment. Learn more about the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, which we still participate in. 
  • Prove the economic sense of green infrastructure to promote its use throughout the Northwest.  
  • Promote the use of natural solutions for drinking water managers everywhere. Learn more about the AWWA report here LINK.

About Source Watershed Restoration 

Development over the past 150 years in the Pacific Northwest 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. The good news is that there are adaptation solutions. Watershed restoration can be a cost-effective means to improve water quality today while also recovering ecosystem resilience to meet tomorrow’s challenges. 

Watershed restoration activities can include: 

  • Restoring beaver populations to increase groundwater recharge and biodiversity 
  • Reconnecting a river to its floodplain through side-channel or alcove rehabilitation to slow stream flow and create specialized habitat for fish and wildlife 
  • 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. For example, reconnecting a stream with historic side-channel habitat allows fish and other aquatic organisms to migrate to cool water refugia, while also slowing down flood waters. 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. It also creates more opportunity for groundwater supplies to be replenished. As a result, many of the critical concerns we face with changing climate conditions are addressed: biodiversity and water quality are enhanced; the peak depth of floodwaters during storm events is reduced; and late-summer instream flows are improved.  

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). 

Highlights from the Working Waters Initiative

Source Water Protection Workshops

In 2018, as part of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, we collaborated with the Environmental Finance Center to host a series of workshops throughout Oregon and Washington to bring together drinking water operators, land managers, and restoration practitioners. Each one-day workshop was a mix of short presentations with question and answer time, facilitated discussions, and open dialogue, along with a site visit to either a local drinking water treatment facility or restoration project; designed to:

  • Build relationships between water providers, restoration practitioners, and land managers.
  • Raise awareness among conservation practitioners of drinking water quality and supply concerns.
  • Raise awareness among individual water systems of restoration and protection actions that can improve water quality/supply.
  • Identify potential restoration projects or conservation actions, along with funding and partners, which may address shared goals.

The problem is that the utilities and the conservationists don’t often know about each other, even if they live or work in the same area. These Source Water Workshops were a singular opportunity for participants to share and learn together about the ways that drinking water quality relates to fish habitat restoration and nonpoint source pollution control, along with associated funding. Participants were able to forge new alliances to support their efforts in achieving more conservation and restoration projects.

Workshop Locations and Materials

April 10, 2018: Wenatchee, Washington

May 23, 2018: Roseburg, Oregon

June 6, 2018: Raymond, Washington

June 7, 2018: Chehalis, Washington

AWWA Report

A new guide for communicating with customers on source water protection

In national polls, American consistently rank drinking water quality and safety as a top environmental concern. At the same time, polls also reveal that few Americans actually know where their drinking water originates. These facts highlight how important it is for drinking water utilities to communicate regularly with their customers. Ratepayers who understand and care about their drinking water supply are more likely to support the utility’s source water protection efforts.

Finding the right means to reach customers and deciding what to say may seem like a challenge, though. That’s why the American Water Works Association (AWWA) commissioned a report to help small- and medium-sized utilities more effectively communicate on source water protection issues in their Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs). The CCR is a unique opportunity to connect with and educate customers since every utility is required to send one to every customer each year.

The Geos Institute was selected to write the guidance document and the final report “Communicating Source Water Protection Efforts in Consumer Confidence Reports” is now available.*The report is available online to AWWA members only until October 2018. Thereafter it will be free to the general public for download.

The guidance document contains advice on source water protection topics to include in every CCR, why, and successful communication tips. Examples from actual CCRs published around the country are provided for reference.

The report was crafted with small- and medium-sized utilities in mind but the advice can be used by utilities of any size. It encourages all drinking water providers to share protection information that goes above and beyond what’s required by law and lists four things that should be included in every CCR:

  • Describe the source area. Do not simply name the source and availability of a source water assessment. Make use of personal stories, maps, illustrations, and graphics to help the reader appreciate the source of their drinking water and its relationship to the community.
  • Explain why it matters to protect the source area. There are many good reasons for pursuing source water protection, from protecting public health to saving money and enhancing fish and wildlife populations. Talk about these reasons – consider featuring different aspects over time – in terms of the utility’s work and the community’s values for the source area.
  • Underscore the utility’s commitment to source water protection. The utility or municipality should demonstrate that it takes a proactive, organized, and serious approach to source water protection, reflecting the valuable nature of the resource. There are two main ways to communicate this: articulate a vision or goal for source water protection and give specific examples of how you are protecting the source area.
  • Offer clear ways for customers to help protect the drinking water source. Point to additional resources for engaging in source water protection activities, such as volunteer tree-planting events or educational tours of the area, and offer tips that individuals, households, and businesses can make to reduce their water use and pollution.

The CCR is an important, but often overlooked, communications channel for utilities to inform customers about their drinking water source and inspire good stewardship. The new AWWA guidance document can help utilities of all sizes to write more effective CCRs. After all, source water protection is a big job and no single organization or person can do it on their own.

Originally published 10 May 2018

Spotlight on Oregon

Why We Do What We Do

As our climate changes and our infrastructure ages, new challenges arise to keep ratepayers confident in the water flowing from their taps and for water managers committed to keeping drinking water supplies reliable and affordable for all residents.  Traditionally, water utilities have relied on human-designed infrastructure – concrete and chemicals – to engineer their way to safe drinking water but as the risks grow, so do costs.

At Working Waters, we help communities capitalize on the original engineer: nature.

We know that healthy watersheds store and filter water more effectively than many human-designed systems. By incorporating nature-based solutions into water infrastructure management, we can reduce pollution before it enters any pipes thereby lowering water treatment costs, offsetting the burden of infrastructure maintenance, and supporting environmental health while preparing for a changing climate.

And we cannot wait any longer: 

These statistics, while unique to Oregon, play out much the same way in every other state. Crumbling infrastructure and population change keep water managers across the country preoccupied while water pollution and climate change worry ratepayers and managers everywhere.

We believe that all communities – no matter their size, wealth, or location – should have the opportunity to create a resilient future by investing in sustainable water infrastructure and management – from the headwaters down. 

So, in 2015 we founded Drinking Water Providers Partnership, the country’s first private-public partnership dedicated to helping local groups in Oregon and Washington protect drinking water and enhance native fish habitat. 

We have focused on filling the capacity gaps that small and economically disadvantaged towns in the Pacific Northwest face, from providing technical and financial assistance through the Partnership to building working relationships between towns, conservation professionals, watershed councils, and land management agencies.  Yet the demand for nature-based solutions is greater than any one organization’s ability to provide. 

That’s why in 2019 we will be advocating to:

  • Set Local Priorities - Develop drinking water source protection and restoration plans for every community, with a special focus on small, rural, and economically disadvantaged communities.
  • Get More Restoration Accomplished - Grow the Drinking Water Providers Partnership.
  • Incentivize Resilient Water Solutions – Create a pipeline of green and grey water infrastructure projects.

These three activities can mobilize private and public resources, catalyze landscape-scale improvements, and solve real problems.

We’ve talked with individuals, leaders, and towns around the state who are ready to meet our challenges, and not just with concrete and chemicals.

The demand for nature-based solutions is there, your support can help us to meet it. 

Originally published October 4, 2018

How Partnerships Make Source Water Protection Possible

Working Waters’ Director Cathy Kellon was invited to write an article in the Washington Department of Health’s newsletter for drinking water operators, “H2Ops.”

The March 2018 issue, “Better Safe,” focused on source water protection and we were happy to share our thoughts on how partnerships make source water protection possible for utilities of all sizes.

Read the full newsletter here (Kellon’s piece is on page 6)

Originally published April 6, 2018

WeWork Interview with Cathy Kellon

A Conversation With Working Waters Program Director Cathy Kellon

Cathy runs the Working Waters Initiative of the Geos Institute from Portland, OR. She was recently interviewed by WeWork. Read the full interview here: In Oregon, a Commitment to Clean Water Shows What Happens ‘When We Invest in Nature’

Working Waters (my program) is really about making it easier for water managers to turn to nature whenever possible to meet our water quality and supply goals, instead of relying exclusively on concrete and chemicals. Nature is the original engineer; it’s very good at being able to produce reliable supplies of clean water.

Originally published July 8, 2016

Restoring the Source Event

How creating Freeways for Fish led to Working Waters

By Tonya Graham

Marking success in southern Oregon

Earlier this month, Geos Institute threw a party to celebrate the reopening of over 1,200 miles of native fish habitat in the Rogue River basin. The March 11th event marked the close of our 13+ year Freeways for Fish Initiative and publicly launched our new Working Waters Initiative.

Fourteen years ago, native fish had a really hard time accessing some of the best habitat in the Rogue River because of various obstacles – dams on the main stem and irrigation diversion dams on many of the tributaries made it very difficult for native fish to find good spawning and rearing habitat and to get to cool water when river levels were low.

Brian Barr and Dominick DellaSala hatched the idea of a campaign to open access to high quality habitat across the Rogue basin for native fish by removing the dams and repairing fish ladders that were making it difficult or impossible for fish to pass. They completed a science assessment to identify the top priority barriers to remove, set the goal at reopening 1,200 miles of habitat for native fish, and Brian Barr set out to get the projects done.

Now, over a dozen years later and with the removal of two dams last summer, we have surpassed our goal by creating access for fish to 1,299 river miles in the Rogue River system! And, the two dams that capped off this campaign last year on Evans Creek were both listed on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s top ten fish passage barriers for the entire state.

People make it possible

All of this work was possible because of the support we have received from many different individuals, foundations, and government agencies. And there would have been no celebration without one person, in particular, a man named Ben. Ten years ago, after he had been contributing to the program for a couple of years, we approached Ben with a big request. We asked him to make a significant 10 year pledge to underwrite the program. We thought it would take us about ten years to complete the campaign and we knew that many of these projects were 3 or 4 years in the making. That timeline is hard for many foundations and government agencies to manage.

We needed a pledge to anchor the program so that we knew we would have some amount of resources several years out. And Ben agreed to provide it. With that anchor, we were confident that our other supporters would fill in the gap and they did. That anchor pledge allowed us to make multi-year commitments, and when combined with the other contributions and grants, we were able to leverage Ben’s gift creating over $5 million dollars of restoration – leveraging his investment by 11 times.

All of these accomplishments for fish and residents, can be traced back to Brian Barr and his absolute commitment to the health of the Rogue River and its tributaries. He is a self-proclaimed “muddy boots” kind of guy – someone who is always the most comfortable when his feet and his fishing pole are in the river.

Transitions

As we were preparing for last year’s in-stream construction season, Brian was offered the position of Executive Director of the Rogue River Watershed Council. Four existing watershed councils were being merged here in the valley and they wanted Brian to lead the way. It was one of those heart stopping moments when he told me because I realized that not only was this exactly the work he should move forward with after meeting the Freeways for Fish goal, but that it also meant that he would no longer be part of our team. Brian is a big reason we held this celebration. He’s an incredible person, friend, and a dedicated defender of native fishes. All of us and the fish of the Rogue River are lucky to have him in our corner of the world.

The party was also a chance to formally introduce our new Working Waters Initiative and share how we are expanding the reach of our restoration work throughout the Pacific Northwest. This initiative was born of two realizations over the last several years.

An areal map of little butte creek with lines drawn on showing the current channel, historic channel, and restored channelThe first was that while we were doing this restoration work for fish, some of it was having a positive impact on drinking water. In our Little Butte Creek project, we worked with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to put a very large meander back into a section of creek that had been channelized decades earlier. When the project was done, we realized that not only did it create fish habitat, but it also had other positive benefits.

By allowing floodwaters to once again spread across the floodplain we were helping slow down the water. The sediment was dropping out making the flow less muddy. And that slower moving water does a better job of recharging aquifers. So this work done for fish was doing double duty, but no one was measuring the impact to water quality and what that meant for the water treatment facility downstream.

The second realization was that changing climate conditions are already having an enormous impact on freshwater, especially here in the West where we depend heavily on snowmelt. In our ClimateWise program when we brought these climate projections to communities and would instantly identify water quality and supply as one of their top concerns. Usually it was number one.

But when water managers went to their toolbox to deal with this issue, all that was waiting for them was concrete, steel and chemicals. We had just spent a decade taking dams out only to watch communities respond to the threat of climate change by suggesting we start building new dams. We needed to put restoration in to their toolbox as a way of dealing with water quality and supply issues.

So, two years ago, we began a partnership with the Forest Service and several communities in Oregon to develop restoration projects specifically to improve water quality and supplies for people. We knew that restoration helps communities – we have seen it firsthand – but we also knew that if these techniques were going to become actual tools for water managers, someone had to start measuring their impact. We decided that that someone was going to be us. Brian initiated the program with the Forest Service, and last year we hired Cathy Kellon to run this new effort.

Restoring the source around the Pacific Northwest

In the past year, a few more people have joined us in what we’re now calling the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. In addition to the original partners – Geos Institute and Region 6 of the USFS – we also have Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Region 10 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the OR/WA office of BLM, WildEarth Guardians, and Washington Department of Health at the table.

We are collaborating to restore and protect the ecosystems that native fish depend upon as well as those we rely upon for our drinking water. And we’re doing this in an innovative way: coordinating an annual grant award process that is designed to build working partnerships between drinking water providers, landowners, and restoration practitioners.

In November 2015 we released our very first Request for Proposals. By the time the RFP closed in December, we had received 20 applications for watershed enhancement projects around Oregon and Washington, totaling nearly $800,000 in requested funding. Proposed projects included everything from culvert replacements to floodplain reconnection to improving shade along streams. Of these, 12 projects have been recommended for funding and one of these will bring us back to working in the Rogue’s Little Butte Creek.

In addition to the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, we are working to build the business case for restoration and healthy watersheds so that water managers have the information they need to compare the performance and costs of green versus gray infrastructure. For example, where a town is concerned about the loss of mountain snowpack and its own water security, people’s thoughts immediately go to artificial water impoundment, like dams and reservoirs. However, what if water managers, instead, avoided that kind of capital investment in a storage project by putting beaver back in headwater streams? We know this kind of restoration creates a multitude of benefits but would those thousands of small ponds that beavers create also be enough to keep the water flowing instream through late summer and droughts?

We don’t have answers to those kinds of questions – yet! – but they are the sorts of things we’re looking to make sense of. It should be easier for communities, ratepayers, and water managers to turn to nature whenever possible. And additional information on effectiveness, costs and benefits is key to success so that it’s possible to compare, say, pouring concrete for a new dam to relocating beavers from where they’re considered a nuisance on private lands back up to headwater streams.

Fortunately, thanks to the past 13+ years of accomplishments in the Rogue River, we’ve got a solid foundation upon which to continue building healthier watersheds and put restoration into the toolboxes of water managers across the region.

Originally published March 21, 2016

2015 in review

The nonprofit sector isn’t always known for taking the time to celebrate accomplishments. I’m not sure if it’s because the problems we’re trying to solve in the world are so difficult and daunting, or if it’s because we’re so busy, or if there’s something else at play, but with the advent of a new year, I’d like to rectify this oversight. Whether the change we seek in the world is incremental or transformational, positive and productive outcomes are worth sharing.

So, without further ado, here’s a short list of highlights from 2015: 

  • Surpassed our 1,200 mile goal of reopening access to historic, high-quality habitat for native fish in the Rogue Basin!
  • Helped remove two of the top ten worst fish passage barriers in Oregon: Wimer and Fielder dams on Evans Creek, a tributary to the Rogue River.
  • Transitioned our successful Freeways For Fish program to focus on municipal watersheds.
  • Launched the Drinking Water Providers Partnership with the Forest Service, a coalition that also includes the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Washington Department of Health, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
  • Announced the first call for grant proposals under the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, and received 20 applications for source watershed restoration and conservation projects in Oregon and Washington. We anticipate awarding up to $660,000 in early 2016!
  • Earned a seat on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council.

Looking ahead, 2016 is shaping up to be a great year too. We are partnering with water managers, academic institutions, towns, and agencies to put restoration projects on the ground and conduct research that will answer important management questions about the costs, risks, and effectiveness of restoration versus grey infrastructure (concrete, steel, and chemicals).

Our long-term goal is to make it easier for water managers to know where restoration can be used most effectively in addressing water challenges. From small coastal towns to high desert urban hubs, Working Waters is helping communities in the Pacific Northwest address the challenges of a changing climate through restoration.

Originally published January 4, 2016

From “Freeways For Fish” to “Working Waters”

In 2015, Geos Institute’s Freeways for Fish program surpassed its long-term goal of restoring native fish access to over 1,200 river miles in the Rogue River Basin. By healing damaged habitat, removing outdated infrastructure, and restoring natural water flow patterns, the Rogue River Basin and its salmon are now better prepared for the impacts of climate change.

Surpassing this restoration goal also marked an inflection point for us. As we helped recover native fish habitat over the past thirteen years, we discovered that towns and water utilities were also reaping the benefits of cleaner water as a result of our projects.

Drinking water supplies continue to be impacted by climate change, and towns are looking for innovative ways to meet these challenges. Protecting and enhancing water at its source is a first line of defense in meeting the basic needs of people and nature, especially as climate conditions change. So, in 2015, we are wrapping up our final projects under the Freeways for Fish program and formally launching our Working Waters initiative to help restore water quality for communities, as well as fish.

While our program name has changed, our sights remain set on the big picture: shift the paradigm within the water management sector from a primary focus on built, “gray” solutions to that of enhancing the natural capacity of fresh water ecosystems to provide clean, reliable supplies of freshwater. We are building on our years of restoration success in the Rogue Basin to help managers of public drinking water systems throughout the Pacific Northwest. Upcoming projects will help protect watersheds region-wide as a key strategy for adapting to the uncertainties of a changing climate. 

Originally published October 15, 2015

Green infrastructure and drinking water?

Nature is a brilliant engineer. Healthy forests and healthy watersheds provide clean, reliable drinking water for people and wildlife, free of charge. Natural systems like floodplains, healthy forests, and free-flowing rivers are called green infrastructure, because when they are working, they can naturally ensure safe, sustainable drinking water. Green infrastructure is effective, inexpensive, and regenerative.

“Headwaters forests provide over 60% of the American West’s water supply and they are in grave danger.”

-Carpe Diem West

Today, many places rely almost exclusively on grey infrastructure, human-built solutions like dams and filtration technologies. Grey infrastructure, while highly effective, is also expensive to build, maintain, replace, and upgrade. And, as we move into the 21st century, we face new water safety challenges. Our environment, climate, and communities are changing, and existing infrastructure is struggling to keep up with demand.

Working Waters believes that green infrastructure is an essential complement to gray infrastructure – and often a missing piece – in today’s water management strategies. It has the power to improve water quality and restore natural lands while helping reduce water utility costs, benefiting everyone from source to tap.

And when it comes to drinking water, in the Pacific Northwest, like elsewhere in the American West, many public drinking water utilities rely upon water from streams and rivers that originate on forested lands, much of it in public ownership. These source watersheds comprise nearly 40% of our lands in Oregon and Washington and are considered more vulnerable to contamination than groundwater, as a general rule. If the water is highly polluted it requires more time and money, and often more chemicals, to treat it to safe standards. This is money that could be put towards meeting other community priorities. Moreover, unlike with gray infrastructure, protecting and restoring the rivers and streams providing our drinking water will benefit wildlife and makes ecosystems more resilient to climate change.

Improving water quality before it ever reaches an intake pipe is more than just a good idea. It’s also baked into the Safe Drinking Water Act: the enhancement and protection of water quality and quantity at its source (aka source water control) is recognized as the first line of defense in a multi-barrier approach – that includes robust treatment, monitoring, and a secure delivery system – to ensuring safe drinking water for people. In other words, nature is part of our drinking water infrastructure system.

At Working Waters, we are committed to restoring nature’s ability to provide safe water for our families and wildlife by helping communities use green infrastructure whenever feasible. This is part of the next generation of water treatment and delivery systems – systems that will serve not only our homes and families, but the homes and families of our children and grandchildren.

Most of the treatment plants and pipes delivering our drinking water were originally built in the early to mid-20th century. The hard work of prior generations allowed for great strides to be made in our public health, economic development, and emergency response, contributing to the quality of life that we often take for granted today.

Unfortunately, we’ve neglected a lot of the maintenance our nation’s water treatment and supply infrastructure needs. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States’ drinking water infrastructure a grade of D, noting that “much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.” At the same time, regulatory requirements are becoming more burdensome for local water managers, many of whom – particularly in the West – are grappling with growing populations, growing water demand, and dwindling public funding for infrastructure upgrades and expansions. Climate change poses yet another challenge by contributing to water variability and reducing the reliability of existing water supplies.

“Our current prosperity and quality of life stand on the shoulders of past investments and past visionaries.”

Michael Fenn, 2014, Recycling Ontario’s Assets

Yet the problem remains. The American Water Works Association estimates the cost of replacing our worn-out pipes over the next 25 years at $1 trillion – and the longer we defer the maintenance, the more expensive it will become. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need smart infrastructure solutions that will work for people and the environment, without breaking the bank.

In the coming years we will also help to build an economic case for the value of green infrastructure for securing reliable supplies of clean drinking water, making it easy for water managers to make informed decisions that make sense for their constituencies. And we’re dedicated to contributing on-the-ground support to make a real difference in local ecosystems right now. From small coastal towns to high desert urban hubs, Working Waters is helping the Northwest’s communities prepare for a warming climate by looking upstream.

Originally published November 1, 2015

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