Metro Residents Plunge into Watershed Stewardship

February 10, 2003

Paul Heimowitz walking in tall grass with a Watershed Stewardship Class.Talk about skyrocketing class sizes in education. Paul Heimowitz has 1.5 million students.

They all live in Oregon's largest metropolitan area, at the receiving end of Oregon's two largest rivers, the Willamette and the Columbia.

As the Portland area aquatic ecosystem health educator for the Oregon State University Extension Service and Oregon Sea Grant, it's Heimowitz's job to help metro residents keep their watersheds healthy.

"Everyone lives in a watershed," said Heimowitz. "There's lots of work to do, and not enough funding to do it all."

So, his strategy is to train a growing corps of stewards, who ultimately will help 1.5 million people repair and protect their watersheds one piece at a time.

Heimowitz coordinates the OSU Extension Master Watershed Steward program in the metro area, a four-month intensive training in watershed ecology, restoration and monitoring. His stewards, all volunteers, slog through muck and mud and scientific texts to learn how to restore ecosystem function in urban streams and wetlands. They in turn donate time toward restoring metro watersheds.

"It's common to think of watersheds in terms of rural streams, free-flowing water and spawning fish," said Heimowitz. "But in the metro area, fish have to first run a gauntlet of culverts and cement through the urban corridor."

In the first field trip of this year's program, he hiked his students down Rock Creek from its headwaters among the mansions of Portland's West Hills, past agricultural land, through the campus of Portland Community College to where it joins the Tualatin River at Rood Bridge Park.

In two years, about 40 Portland residents have plunged into the rigorous program and emerged as watershed stewards.

"It's a demanding program, with training sessions, field trips and a big project at the end," said Heimowitz. "And still we have lots more people who want the training than we have slots to train them.

"We get a full range of people in the program, including urban and rural, professionals and students, timber managers and environmental group members," he added. "They may come in with a fairly narrow perspective but end up learning a lot from the program and from each other."

Take for example Gail Achterman, a Portland attorney, who waded into the legal morass of water law to help clarify methods to reallocate water to protect instream flows. As executive director of the Deschutes Resources Conservancy, Achterman wanted to learn more about watershed science to complement her expertise in water law.

"For me, the most memorable part of the training was the tour of the Clackamas River, where we saw returning salmon at the Portland General Electric facility and a nice restoration project demonstrating results we were all working toward," said Achterman.

Dresden Skees Gregory, a Xerox product stewardship coordinator from Hillsboro, launched a three-year restoration project on Fairview Creek with a grant and help from the Northwest Service Academy AmeriCorps Program.

"The training made it possible for us to do a comprehensive evaluation of what our watershed was, what it is now, and how we can move it in environmentally beneficial directions in the future," said Gregory.

Jon Bowers, a Geographic Information System specialist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Portland, had hoped to dive into his stewardship project with a snorkel survey on Johnson Creek. But when he found the visibility to be too poor for snorkeling, he chose to train a corps of volunteers to survey spawning adult salmon.

"The most memorable moment in the training was when everyone saw spawning salmon," Bowers said. "You could see it click in many people's minds HOW the process works."

The investment in training watershed stewards is multiplied many times over by the volunteers that each new steward engages, according to Heimowitz.

But some of Portland's water quality problems are bigger than any volunteer corps could tackle. Some streams in the metro area no longer exist, reduced to sewer lines under asphalt. Others are dumped with runoff from streets. Heimowitz is part of a team working with Oregon City officials to consider design recommendations for city rooftops, driveways and parking lots that will keep polluted runoff out of streams.

Concern for watershed health extends beyond the metro area, and so does Heimowitz's work. Every autumn, he helps organize a statewide event called Watershed Weeks to celebrate Oregon's waters. Check the website (www.watershedweeks.org) for a full schedule of activities to get to know the state's rivers and wetlands.

For his work, Heimowitz received this year's award for Excellence in Extension Education from OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. For more information about upcoming Master Watershed Steward training, call the OSU Extension Office in your county.

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Paul Heimowitz