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Climate & Energy
Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative:
Harnessing Collaboration to Restore Salmon Habitat in the Northwest

Cathy Kellon

High in the upper reaches of Oregon’s legendary John Day River, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs (CTWS) and a small army of stream restoration specialists, heavy equipment operators, and loggers are repairing ailing salmon streams and an economy wounded by big timber’s collapse. Together they are removing culverts, restoring mine channels back into spawning beds, and helping ranchers swap irrigation ditches for efficient pipes and sprinkler systems. Through partnerships with diverse organizations and funders, they are hoping to reset the system’s natural ecological processes and see salmon return in higher numbers.

More than 100 restoration projects by the Warm Springs Tribes and other local groups are starting to pay off. Dozens of ranchers have lowered their water use while maintaining their fields, and, last spring, the state opened the John Day to fishermen for a short recreational Chinook season —the first in 36 years.

“Being part of this work gives us hope for this landscape over the long term,” says Amy Charette, the CTWS Watershed Restoration Coordinator.

One of the funders who helped the CTWS undertake restoration in the John Day is actually a partnership of public agencies and a nonprofit. Started in 2007, the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI) brings together restoration funders who have shared goals for salmon recovery, including shared geographic priorities. Camp Creek and a few other small watersheds in the John Day were identified by WWRI partners as high priority so when good projects come along, the WWRI is ready to draw upon funds from multiple sources to help get the work done.
WWRI Partners
Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative partners are Ecotrust, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, USDA Forest Service, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Each of the state and federal agency partners contributes restoration dollars to the Initiative. Ecotrust then makes this pooled fund available as grants to local groups for on-the-ground restoration work.

The partners work together to bring new restoration funding to the Pacific Northwest and increase our impact. The partners’ shared philosophy is that by concentrating and coordinating salmon habitat restoration efforts where there is strong community support, effective collaboration, and high ecological value, measurable and sustainable recovery can be achieved faster than when efforts are spread haphazardly across the landscape. The WWRI also endeavors to create local jobs, promote awareness of watershed issues, and increase citizen participation in salmon recovery.

On all these fronts, the Initiative is delivering real results and shaping up as a model for collaborative funding of restoration work.

Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative Map In 1999 the Forest Service launched its Large Scale Watershed Restoration initiative to test new ideas about landscape-wide restoration; this catalyzed the formation of the Pacific Coast Watershed Partnership (PCWP). The PCWP eventually involved several nonprofits and state and federal agencies (like Washington’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board and federal agencies BLM and EPA) but it wasn’t until the Forest Service and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board tried pooling their money that they ran into problems. Trying to jointly fund projects was too much of a headache. They turned to Ecotrust and asked for help in administering select restoration funds.

At the same time that the realities of blending disparate funding were manifesting, the Pacific Coast Watershed partners were refining their GIS analyses to identify conservation priority areas. Ecotrust’s GIS expertise was brought to bear. On behalf of the PCWP, Ecotrust completed an analysis of all of the available conservation priorities studies and associated data for Oregon and Washington coastal watersheds. The analysis provided information for the selection of priority basins.

In 2005, these diverse partnerships, which are all focused on targeted watershed restoration, evolved into the Pacific Northwest Whole Watershed Restoration Partnership, expanding the scope of the original partnership from coastal Oregon and Washington to encompass the entire Pacific Northwest area. The Partnership’s unique approach is to identify river basins with the highest ecological values and potential responsiveness to restoration (from a salmon habitat perspective) and where there is demonstrated local support. Within these basins, we are targeting local, regional, and national restoration funds to the watersheds with the highest conservation value for salmon and for the projects most essential to the recovery of natural watershed processes.

The Partnership officially became known as the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI) in 2007 when Ecotrust was awarded a NOAA Coastal and Marine Habitat Restoration Partnership Grant. The Partnership cross-referenced their selected priority areas with NOAA’s priorities for salmon recovery and the priorities of local partners working in individual basins to select focus watersheds to target funding and technical resources for the purpose of accomplishing restoration on a whole watershed scale.

2009 marked the WWRI expansion to Idaho, where Ecotrust and NOAA staff consulted with public, private, and tribal restoration-oriented organizations to select priority basins and focus watersheds. In 2010 the Bureau of Land management joined as a funding partner, NRCS in 2011, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012.

Organizing principles
The WWRI partners believe they can have the greatest impact if they follow these three principles:
  1. Restore high priority watersheds first—Instead of spreading limited funds thinly across the landscape, invest in selected, priority basins and focus watersheds only. These areas are identified using WWRI’s conservation planning tools and have been updated over the years to align with the priorities of new partners. For example, in 2006 the North Olympic Coast was added as a Priority Basin and Lake Ozette was added as a Focus Watershed in an effort to help expedite the implementation of NOAA’s most current set of recovery plans.
  2. Measure success at the watershed scale, not the stream reach— WWRI invests in projects that will eliminate chronic risk factors, not band-aid solutions, so as to recover major ecological functions throughout a watershed, across all ownerships. Examples of funded work include fish barrier removals, stream channel restoration, and road decommissioning.
  3. Rely upon local expertise and priorities—WWRI looks for projects that have been identified as top priorities in existing plans such as watershed action plans, limiting factors analyses, or salmon recovery plans and grants project funds to community-based groups with proven experience in restoration work.
WWRI Partners

Benefits of Partnering

WWRI investments have resulted in thousands of acres of restored habitat, but perhaps even more significantly, the partnership has helped advance the evolution of regional restoration strategies to emphasize prioritization-based approaches to recovery. 
  • WWRI makes its dollars go further. Pooling limited funds allows the partners to sponsor on-the- ground work at meaningful scales, working across the watershed and cutting across arbitrary divisions of agencies. 
  • WWRI grantees work with a single entity and a single set of forms yet have access to multiple funding sources, enabling them to spend less time fundraising for their projects and more time getting the on-the-ground work done. 
  • WWRI grantees experience more flexibility in meeting funder requirements for non-federal match. The partners estimate non-federal co-funding at the program level—across all funded projects—thereby giving individual grantees more latitude in funding their projects. 
  • WWRI’s project-ranking criteria reflects the needs of each of the major funding sources (NOAA, Forest Service, and OWEB) and the project reporting requirements meet the most stringent of partner requirements. Hence, the WWRI provides consistent and rigorous project tracking information across funders. 
  • Partners bring more than money to the table: they also bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise. For example, NOAA can help grantees navigate federal permitting and Ecotrust is well positioned to undertake socioeconomic assessments and pursue earned media that agency partners cannot.
Bottom line: Shared Goals Lead to Creative Models
(Note: this section reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the WWRI partners.)
The primary challenge we face is not unique to the WWRI, nor is it news to anyone who has worked in collaborative efforts involving a range of public and private partners: most government agencies are typically not set up to partner with outside organizations. There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is that each agency has its own unique mandates, jurisdictions, and internal administrative systems. Partnering, in this context, is simply a way to organize resources to solve problems or reach goals; the functional implication is that wherever interests and goals align, there is opportunity for collaboration. It was in fact this recognition of shared interests that spawned the WWRI. Individuals within the partner organizations recognized they have shared interests in recovering and sustaining ecosystem health that cut across agency boundaries, and they found creative ways to work together within their existing rules and structures. This is important to note: the WWRI exists largely because of the effort of truly motivated and innovative individuals working together, not because of institutional design. If the rules or norms that deter partnering in the first place are not addressed, then successful collaborations will continue to rely upon the attentiveness of individual staff.

Another good reason that many groups do not pursue partnerships is that working with outside entities usually entails more work—or, at the minimum, working differently —even though the payoff can be significant in terms of increased impact and expanded resources. For example, funding from each partner has its own set of limitations, associated procedures, and reporting requirements. To make the partnership workable, Ecotrust must be responsive to each partner’s prerequisites and, thus, takes on responsibility for WWRI’s coordination and administration. Regardless of what entity serves as a partnership hub or broker, though, it’s easy to imagine that any effort to standardize reporting obligations, automate financial transactions, or increase data interoperability would be beneficial to all.

WWRI Restoration project

Finally, a challenge to WWRI’s success is one shared by everyone in the restoration funding community, not just partnerships. At the end of the day, funders want assurance that they are putting their money into the most important work for that time and place. Not all basins have robust salmon habitat restoration strategies in place, unfortunately. Plan format, specificity, geographic coverage, and degree of prioritization are highly variable from one watershed to the next. Some places have a clear set of recommended actions designed for whole watershed restoration which are being used to guide the choice of restoration projects proposed for funding. However, this is not the case everywhere. In practical terms this makes it challenging for both grantees and funders to estimate progress and garner support for their effort.

While there may be significant roadblocks to partnering, the risks of failing to meet our modern environmental challenges are even more daunting. The fact is, to improve our prospects for recovering salmon, we need to increase our collective impact. And given the complexity of this and most other worthwhile challenges, it is hard to imagine achieving this within the walls of a single organization. If institutions reward integrity, creativity, efficacy, and adaptation in the pursuit of meaningful goals, then methods like collaboration will become not just more commonplace but easier and more efficient. And as a result, perhaps we can realize on-the- ground improvements in community and ecosystem health sooner rather than later.

Cathy Kellon is Director of the Water and Watersheds Program at Ecotrust in Portland, Oregon. Learn more at http://www.ecotrust.org/wwri/.
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