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Is It Time for a Deschutes River Council?

by Paul Pickett

The last few months have seen remarkable developments in Thurston County's Deschutes River basin.

The Washington State Department of Ecology released the results of an extensive study of water quality in the Deschutes River basin, Capitol Lake, and Budd Inlet.

Research shows that sediment levels and temperatures are high in the river, creating conditions that are potentially harmful to aquatic life. High temperatures were shown to be mostly due to poor riparian shade. However, a 30 percent decline in summer low flows was also identified as raising temperatures.

Meanwhile, the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Program came out with final recommendations on Capitol Lake. The voting members strongly endorsed the restoration of the estuary from the current reservoir.

The poor water quality of the lake and the potential for salmon restoration, as well as the cost of maintaining the lake, were compelling reasons for their recommendation.

Several years ago, I wrote an article in the Green Pages that compared our Deschutes River to Oregon's river of the same name "A Tale of Two Deschutes," December 2005. The point of the article was that lessons from the successful watershed management effort in Oregon's Deschutes River could be applied here in our watershed.

The time is now ripe to revisit that idea.

In April, Jeff Mocniak, who has been floating the idea of a Deschutes River Council, contacted me. Mocniak set up a prototype website for interested people to explore at http://www.deschuteswc.ning.com

We exchanged ideas over coffee and his energy and creativity were a pleasure.

I've looked at watershed council efforts over the years and in many places, and I see several key issues that need to be addressed for this idea to move forward:

Engage the tribes. The Native American nations in our region have a huge stake in the Deschutes watershed. In particular, the Squaxin Tribe holds usual and accustomed fishing areas in the basin and, therefore, has sovereign legal rights.

The Water Resource Inventory Area planning process for WRIA 13 failed because the interests of the tribe weren't respected. As a result, the other jurisdictions involved with that process, especially Thurston County, have been gun-shy of beginning a new watershed effort.

I've talked to staff at the Squaxin Tribe in the past, and I was reassured that they weren't opposed to a watershed planning effort in the basin. However, the rights and the sovereignty of the tribes need to be acknowledged and the planning effort designed with their full involvement, cooperation, ownership, and leadership.

Develop relationships. Water problems are rarely solved with simple technological fixes. People have strong feelings about water issues and need their views respected and heard. To organize a successful watershed council, all people and interests in the basin need to be brought into the process. They need to be listened to and they need to be involved so they have a shared ownership in the process. If one interest takes control of the agenda and leaves other interests out, the process will fail.

Take a holistic approach. The problems of the Deschutes River watershed, Capitol Lake, and Budd Inlet are an interwoven web of environmental and social issues. Erosion and devegetation are linked to land use, economics, and law. People's activities can be driven by commercial needs or by deeply held belief systems. The quality of the water is tied closely to the quantity of water. Ground water use can impact surface flows in the river. To focus on one issue can result in problems in another area and unintended consequences. It's critical that a broad net is cast to bring in the interconnected issues that drive watershed health, support ecosystem functions, and control water quality.

Many other details and concerns would need to be considered, but these three are the most significant. To achieve success, they need to be fully addressed.

Success is critical to the Deschutes River. Some might argue that confusion and the absence of management protect the basin from growth. But, in the long run, this clearly isn't true. Erosion, deforestation, and the drilling of unregulated wells continue in the basin. Water quality problems have now been clearly documented.

A Deschutes Watershed Council could turn this around. And maybe the time to start has arrived.

Paul Pickett is an environmental engineer, Public Utility District Commissioner, and columnist for Green Pages.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22