New guide to better riparian areas in the Willamette Valley

Douglas Spirea in a Willamette Valley riparian area. Photo by Jared Kinnear.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The health of fish and wildlife and the quality of the water they call home depend in large measure on the trees and shrubs that grow in riparian areas along streams and riverbanks.

Although the task is not easy, riparian areas that are damaged can be replanted. Six manageable steps are detailed in a comprehensive Oregon State University guide written by OSU Extension foresters Glenn Ahrens, Max Bennett and Brad Withrow-Robinson.

The new 27-page booklet, “A Guide to Riparian Tree and Shrub Planting in the Willamette Valley: Steps to Success,” is available free from OSU Extension online at: http://bit.ly/OSUESem9040

In healthy riparian areas, plants help control erosion and trees give shade to cool the water. Leaves and insects drop into the water to feed fish, and migratory songbirds nest in well-developed shrub layers.

Efforts to restore riparian areas in Oregon have become more common during the last several years, Withrow-Robinson said. But the success of riparian plantings varies widely, and some fail.

“Problems arrive because seedling survival and growth are often poor, competition from weeds can be high, soil texture can vary widely and animal damage is common,” Withrow-Robinson said.

To help landowners, watershed councils and others avoid the obstacles, the guide gives information specific to the Willamette Valley, Withrow-Robinson said. “The valley is particularly challenging because summers are hot and dry and streams run through agricultural and urban areas that have been modified.”

The guide explains how to understand a watershed and what it needs the most.

“In western Oregon, warm stream water usually is the primary water-quality issue,” Withrow-Robinson said. The authors recommend that landowners examine their site and identify specific challenges such as frequent flooding, poorly drained soils and types of weeds.

Information tables in the guide compare characteristics of several seedling and stock species that flourish in the Willamette Valley and which plants and trees have a high tolerance to flooding, drought and shade. Because it’s important that planting is done right, the guide gives specifics on how to handle seedlings carefully, plant during the winter dormant season and use proper tools.

It also specifies how to minimize erosion, control weeds, prevent animal damage and consider if irrigation is needed.

Greening the Infrastructure

There is much talk of infrastructure out there in the media these days. This is because infrastructure–the roads, buildings, water systems, sewers, schools, rails and hundreds of other physically engineered underpinnings of modern life in 21st century America–are getting a giant monetary shot in the arm.  A sizable chunk of the  $700 plus billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act advanced by the Obama administration was aimed to rebuild, improve or expand infrastructure. That money has begun to take roost in thousands of projects around the country.  You can get an interesting look at these by viewing a ProPublica website detailing who spends what and where it goes. Over $7 billion went specifically to water projects according to the Water Environment Federation.

In Oregon, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act poured $44 million into the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, $28 million into the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and about $4.5K into water quality planning (604b) grants.

With regards to water, we are mostly concerned with two kinds of infrastructure. The first are the water systems that deliver it in a usable and (usually) safe state to million of drinking water taps, agricultural fields, businesses, parks or public spaces.

stormsewer grate

Stormsewer Grate, Photo by R. Emanuel

The second chunk of infrastructure takes the waste water away from our fields, parks, homes and businesses.  That infrastructure is critical from an engineering, industrial, and public safety perspective. Often the water is laced with bacteria from human and animal waste, organic chemicals and heavy metals from our industrial processes, flushes petroleum from  roads, carries fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture, gardens, and landscaping.  For much of human history, we disposed of that water with the idea that “dilution is the solution to pollution,” in that we got rid of it quickly enough and far enough away from human settlements, it would no longer be a problem. In cities and towns, we focused on sewers to transport and treat human or commercial waste, and stormsewers for the water that falls on our hard surfaces (i.e., those that don’t absorb water the way a native landscape of plants and soil normally do).  In all cases, we have designed convenient ways to ferry water out of town and into the nearest water body where it will dilute and go away. Unfortunately, we have discovered that there is no “away” for stormwater and its pollutants.

All of this we call “gray” infrastructure. And it’s in serious need of work, but also some re-thinking.  One way to look at the dilemma of what to do with stormwater and its expensive, deteriorating infrastructure is to try to replace it where possible with “green infrastructure.”  What is “green infrastructure”?  The non-profit Conservation Fund defines it this way:

Green infrastructure is strategically planned and managed networks of natural lands, working landscapes and other open spaces that conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations.

The foundation of green infrastructure networks are their natural elements – woodlands, wetlands, rivers, grasslands – that work together as a whole to sustain ecological values and functions. Healthy functioning natural or restored ecological systems are essential to ensure the availability of the network’s ecological services.

Suburbs against a park.

Suburbs abut a park.

Additional elements and functions can then be added to the network, depending on the desires and needs of the designers – working lands, trails and other recreational features, cultural and historic sites. These all can be incorporated into green infrastructure networks that contribute to the health and quality of life for America’s communities.

In the case of stormwater management, we should consider the native and urban forests, native and non-native landscapes as places to absorb and process rainwater, to offset the negative impacts of building more hard surfaces (rooftops, sidewalks, roadways, parking lots, etc.) which generate more stormwater runoff.  We can look at it at multiple scales as the Conservation Fund notes:

While green infrastructure planning occurs at a broad ‘landscape scale,’ elements of the over-arching network can be found at all scales, from state-wide, to the county, city, and parcel/site scale. Critical elements of the implementation strategy, such as low-impact development practices (LID), conservation developments, green/grey interface, etc., are necessary components to any successful green infrastructure plan, and are frequently found at the site/parcel scale.

Sewer Outfall

Sewer Outfall

Part of the problem then with the current thinking about stimulating the economy and re-building the United States’ infrastructure is that much of the money that is focused on water is NOT focused on protecting the natural landscapes or hydrologic process that sustain clean water at the source, or keep it from becoming a problem like stormwater that we must dispose at our expense.  Unfortunately, it seems that we have a tendency to do exactly what Albert Einstein noted was a bad idea: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Let’s try hard to think differently this time. As we make decisions on whether to build (or improve) the stormsewer for that development just outside of town, why not try some smart site design to save most of the existing vegetation on or adjacent to the site.  Let’s think about restoring or conserving the green infrastructure before rebuilding all of the gray. If the analysis of Low Impact Development by the good folks at EcoNorthwest is correct, it might even save us some green.

Where to put some of that "new" federal infrastructure money

One thing is as certain as death and taxes: whenever the federal government proposes new spending, whether realized or not, there will be a veritable chorus of voices informing the public and elected officials about where and how to allocate that spending. This is certainly the case with the incoming Obama Administration’s proposed “largest investment in infrastructure since the National Highway System.” Groups ranging from American Rivers, Save Our Environment, the American Automobile Association, America 2050, and the National Academy of Sciences have all rolled out talking points to guide the new push to dole out something near $600 billion in proposed spending.

The motivations of these myriad groups varies widely.  Some are quite ideological in bent, others may have their hands out, while others are claiming logic is in their favor.  One group that seems to fall into the last category is American 2050, which is composed of a coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers.  The groups mission is “to develop a framework for the nation’s future growth that considers trends such as:

  • Rapid population growth and demographic change
  • Global climate change
  • The rise in foreign trade
  • Sprawling and inefficient land use patterns
  • Uneven and inequitable growth within and between regions
  • Infrastructure systems that are reaching capacity
  • The emergence of megaregions” (mapped out here)

As Wired Magazine put it, American 2050 has urged everyone with their hands on the purse strings to slow down, take a deep breath, and do the following:

  1. Fix what’s broken – Before we start dumping money and resources into splashy new  projects, repair what we already have. Fixing decrepit bridges and crumbling roads isn’t as sexy as building a high-speed rail line or water treatment plant, but it must come first.
  2. Phase it in – Just as you can’t run a marathon without training, you can’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars without planning. Although there are many “shovel ready” projects we must tackle, Obama must consider the big picture. Establishing clear goals, setting timelines for reaching them and building capacity before digging in will increase the chance of project success.
  3. Go green – Infrastructure projects that keep us chained to fossil fuels won’t do much good in the long run. Yes, we must fix our roads and bridges, but we also must prioritize initiatives that will protect the environment and push us toward sustainable energy and transportation.
  4. Train the workforce – Creating jobs through infrastructure spending is more difficult than simply handing out shovels. America 2050 calls for a methodical job training program to provide workers with the skills they need to do the job and make sure we get top-notch work out of them.
  5. Count – Developing metrics to measure the effectiveness of completed projects will help ensure smart spending on future projects. This one seems like a no-brainer.

All of these points are good ones from the perspective of this specialized perch on the North Coast of Oregon. There is a point to be made however: what about the rural areas outside of those “megaregions”? Tillamook and Clatsop Counties, as well as the rest of the Oregon coast are struggling to meet infrastructure needs, including crumbling roads, strained sewer systems, aging water treatment facilities and abundant problems managing stormwater runoff and floods.  These counties have felt the sting of declines in timber receips, while at the same time seeing a housing bubble burst as beach homes lag on the real estate market for years. And already these communities were distressed. Check out the new OSU Rural Communities Explorer website for more information on the state of rural (and coastal) Oregon.

While there is no arguing that cities with large numbers of constituents can lay rightful claim to much of the money and projects that will help their sagging economies and sagging infrastructure, denizens of the rural hinterlands around them will likely request a share of the pie, especially as these communities now feed the urban centers with in-migrants, while urbanites use the hinterlands for recreation, food and timber production. So the quandary is thus: can $600 billion be spread broadly enough to raise the fortunes of the cities AND the towns surrounding them? Or will we see a further nourishment of the megaregions while the economic losers in the game will continue to be the periphery? Time and politics will tell.

And by the way, water-focused environmental group American Rivers has put out “A New Agenda for Water” that makes some interesting points, a couple of which I disagree with, but many that seem spot on for any water wonks to consider in the newly appointed ranks of the departments of Interior, Transportation, Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, or the Environmental Protection Agency.  Check it out.