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Willamette River (copy)

Mergansers perch on a log in the McKenzie River above the Willamette confluence.

It is the river that, more than anything, unites the mid-valley: The Willamette River, 187 miles long from Eugene to Portland, defines this region.

And, like so many other rivers in the West, the Willamette has suffered from abuse and neglect. It has served as a highway for our commerce. It has provided water for residents and irrigated our crops. It has served as a conduit for our sewage, industrial runoff and industrial waste. We have dammed its tributaries to provide power.

Nearly given up for dead, it staged a remarkable comeback in the 1960s as media coverage focused public attention on pollution in its waters.

In short, the story of the Willamette is similar to the story of other rivers throughout the West. 

Over the last decade, another chapter has been written in the Willamette story, as a variety of groups working together has launched a partnership aimed at bringing back some of the river's long-lost natural features. The work, bankrolled by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the nonprofit Meyer Memorial Trust and the Bonneville Power Administration, has done a remarkable amount of good over the last decade, as documented by reporter Bennett Hall in his story from last Sunday's newspaper

Over the past decade, the effort (now dubbed the Willamette Focused Investment Partnership) has invested an estimated $81.6 million in a variety of projects along the river.

The investment has had tangible results: More than 3,900 acres of floodplain and riparian forest have been replanted, 15.5 miles of side channels have been reconnected to the floodplain, 23 fish passage barriers have been removed or improved, 18 miles of in-stream habitat have been restored and 46 acres of wetlands have been enhanced or treated. It's an impressive list.

One of the keys to the success of the effort thus far has been its 10-year funding horizon: That allowed time for the conservation groups and other project partners to dream big and to seek out collaborators.

Now, though, one of the initial funding sources, the Meyer Memorial Trust, is planning to wind down its contributions to the project. That's fine; certainly, the trust has earned the right to explore other directions, and it's been clear from the start that Meyer had no intention of pumping money into these river projects indefinitely. So the trust has started to lay the groundwork for another organization to take the lead, and has pledged $2 million in funding between 2019 and 2023 to help build a bridge for the new leadership.

Anyone who enjoys the river owes the trust a big debt of thanks. There's no doubt that the river is in better shape than it was a decade ago, in no small measure thanks to Meyer's contributions.

But all that still begs the question: Who will take Meyer's place? 

In terms of funding capacity, it seems unlikely that any single entity will be able to assume the role that the trust has held over the last 10 years. 

But that doesn't mean that the project is doomed the minute that the checks stop flowing from the trust. In fact, one of Meyer's goals over the last few years has been to encourage cooperation and build capacity among the land trusts, watershed councils and other nonprofits doing on-the-ground restoration work in the basin. Certainly, when you look at the nearly two dozen major projects that have been funded over the last decade, it's clear that many different groups have worked together.

The trick now is to build on the successes that the partnership already has accomplished, with an eye toward building something that can be sustained over the long run.

Ten years is a blip in the history of a river system. But it represents a long-term commitment in the world of nonprofit funding. It seems likely that the investments made over the past 10 years will have a big payoff for the Willamette Valley for many years to come. (mm)

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