OSU helps watershed councils make plans that hold water

March 28, 2003

CORVALLIS - In a growing number of places throughout Oregon, watershed councils provide a forum for neighbors to plan a shared future for a shared place defined by the water that runs past their homes.

These groups are at the heart of the Oregon Plan. They pump energy into watershed restoration across the state. But most councils have no way of choosing projects that will actually make a difference to the overall health of the watershed.

A team of scientists, led by Oregon State University professor John Bolte, has designed a new tool to help watershed councils plan effective action. This tool, a decision-guiding computer model called RESTORE, is being tested by councils in the Siuslaw, South Santiam and Long Tom watersheds.

"It allows people to set their own goals and priorities, then uses science to develop plans that will most effectively meet those goals," explained Bolte, a bioengineering professor and part of OSU's Agriculture Experiment Station.

Using the RESTORE program, people select priorities using knobs and dials on a computer screen. They can ask themselves, how important is water quality? What about wildlife habitat? Recreation? Property values? With the click of a mouse, a watershed group can set the relative merits of three dozen different aspects of the watershed.

Once priorities are set, the computer screen fills with a mapped plan of action to achieve the goals the group has identified as their priorities.

Bolte's new tool is deceptively simple. Its user-friendly dials and knobs are familiar and logical even to novice computer users. But beyond the easy-to-use computer screen is a powerful program that sorts through layers of complex data with pinpoint detail on soil type, water quality, vegetation, land use, and even economics across the watershed.

In the database being developed for the Long Tom watershed, seven sub-basins each contain at least 13,000 polygons, tiny mapped areas that describe in detail the condition of an acre or two of land.

In addition to this atlas of geographic information, Bolte adds a list of objectives that the watershed council identifies as important to their group. The program distinguishes between people's goals - such as improving streamflow - and possible projects, such as replacing a culvert.

The RESTORE program works like an expert consultant. Using hundreds of built-in rules, the program analyzes the effectiveness of particular projects in particular places to achieve particular goals that the group has identified as priorities.

It cross-references objectives with specific restoration actions and assesses the effect on the larger watershed. Then it locates places in the watershed where restoration dollars and labor will reap the most reward. Different options can be generated in a matter of minutes just by changing the settings of the dials.

"With this tool, watershed councils can select projects that yield the maximum improvement with the funds they have to spend," said Mary Santelmann, an OSU geosciences professor who is one of several collaborators.

"It's an opportunity to help people make on-the-ground decisions that will make a real difference to the health of their watershed."

Author: Peg Herring
Source: John Bolte, Mary Santelmann