For decades, the government has relied on regulations to protect water quality. But what if cities tried something other than simply telling people what they can -- and cannot -- do?
What if cities actually rewarded people for managing their land in ways that keep rivers cool and clean?
Two Oregon cities are trying this approach.
Marilyn Cross lives alongside the McKenzie River. It’s home to salmon and steelhead and the source of drinking water for the downstream city of Eugene.
Cross was one of hundreds of people who argued against a Lane County proposal in 2010 that aimed to protect the McKenzie by limiting riverside development. The county’s leaders never brought it to a vote.
So it might come as a surprise to hear Cross speak with enthusiastic support for another proposal meant to change the way people manage their land to improve the health of the river.
MARILYN CROSS: “I would love to see more native vegetation along the river. I would love to see fewer lawns.”
One of the things Cross likes about the new approach is spelled out in its name: the Voluntary Incentives Program.
It doesn’t force restrictions.
Instead, it compensates landowners who volunteer to have their land managed for them.
She says it will bring positive changes to her property and the river’s health.
Through the VIP program, she hopes to see more trees planted, which would bring benefits to the land and the water.
CROSS: “They want the root systems to help purify runoff as water runs into the river – so that bad stuff doesn’t get back into the river.”
But the question is, will the program actually improve or maintain water quality? And how will we know?
A similar program was launched near the southern Oregon city of Medford in 2012.
The water source for Medford, and other nearby communities is the Rogue River.
The Rogue was at risk of becoming too warm for salmon, and falling short of clean-water standards.
Medford leaders considered installing machinery to cool the water. It would have cost about 15 million dollars.
Instead, the city began paying landowners to plant native trees to provide cooling shade -- at half the cost of the machines.
Notable supporters of Medford’s program include President Barack Obama. Here he is, speaking during a White House Conservation Conference a few months after the program launched.
OBAMA: “That helped to cool the water at a fraction of the cost. It worked for business; it worked for farmers; it worked for salmon.”
NINA BELL: “It has a lot of rhetorical weight. Does President Obama know the details?
That’s Nina Bell, executive director of the legal group, Northwest Environmental Advocates.
Here’s a detail she thinks Obama is missing: -- there’s no proof that water has actually been cooled.
Bell isn’t opposed to using shade from trees to cool the water instead of technology-based solutions – but she says you need to use this strategy everywhere if it’s going to work.
BELL: “We basically need to have laws and rules that require all landowners, not just some, to protect the water quality of Oregon’s public waters.”
The Freshwater Trust helped develop both programs. Alex Johnson works for the non-profit conservation group.
He’s confident that the Rogue River program’s cooling benefits can be proven -- and that it will happen soon enough to keep Medford from violating clean-water standards.
JOHNSON: “There’s plenty of time for these projects to develop and be providing the shade well before, or around the same time, that their exceedance may come into play.”
Johnson says the focus in Medford is improving the Rogue River’s health. But the McKenzie River program is more about keeping streamside habitat in good shape.
JOHNSON: “It’s really exciting for us to be looking at the other side of the coin, as opposed to just straight restoration — but really looking at incentivizing conservation as well.”
Along both the Rogue and the McKenzie rivers, Johnson says the goal is to rely more on natural solutions than manmade ones.
The program on the McKenzie will launch on pilot sites this fall. The full program roll-out is expected in 2015.
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