RUNNING WHITEWATER IN A KAYAK is not that different from steering a group of feuding neighbors through the shoals of local water conflict. Ask Joe Kemper. He’s done both.
An avid paddler who has attacked Class V rapids from Colorado to Costa Rica, Kemper concedes that maneuvering a tiny boat over thundering ledges in places like Oregon’s Opal Creek Wilderness presents obstacles no more dodgy than those he faced when facilitating a series of community meetings in the tiny Coast Range town of Falls City.
“It’s the people who are the really complicated part,” observes Kemper, a graduate student in Water Resources Engineering at Oregon State University. The “ubiquitous, quintessential need” for water, he says, can rip communities apart as well as knit them together.
That fraught intersection of humanity and nature has drawn Kemper in with the force of a narrow chute in a deep canyon. How he arrived at that spot is itself a story of intersections. From Portland’s Jesuit High School, Kemper headed east to Georgetown University where he studied psychology. But always, the “steep creeks and rivers” of the West pulled him back. While fellow students interned in the halls of Congress, he guided raft trips in the wilds of Colorado and California. At loose ends after college, he took a job at a small renewable-energy startup in Washington, D.C.
“That experience reset my life,” he says.
Driven by a new sustainability ethos, Kemper determined to make the environment his workplace as well as his playground — to meld his passion for water with his knowledge of human behavior to become a defender of natural resources. About that time, he traveled to Central America to kayak Panama’s legendary “jungle rapids.” In a little town called Boquete, he witnessed the devastating, river-altering impact of hydroelectric dams. It came as a sobering jolt. Then one day while “Googling around,” he chanced upon Oregon State’s programs in Water Resource Engineering and Water Conflict Resolution. His path appeared.
We tend to think of “transboundary water conflict” as an international problem, something that happens on the parched landscapes of Africa or the Middle East. But the boundaries that divide people can be much more parochial, notes OSU researcher Todd Jarvis, author of the 2014 book, Contesting Hidden Waters. In Falls City on the edge of rural Polk County, for instance, the boundary in question is the one between the historic city (population just over 900) and the timbered county. Across that line, a fight festered for years over seasonal flooding. That’s because landowners often dig ditches to divert unwanted water. One person’s ditch can create a pond in his neighbor’s yard or basement.
By the time a local citizen contacted OSU for help in 2012, “people wouldn’t talk to each other,” recalls Jarvis, a groundwater hydrologist and director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at OSU. Jarvis was invited to study the problem. The first thing he noticed was that the ditch water ran clear, not muddy. This suggested that the flooding source could be groundwater, not surface water. If that was the case, the ditches were tapping into the city’s aquifer, making things wetter not drier.
By then, Kemper was looking for a research project for his thesis. Under Jarvis’s mentorship, he set out to study whether the Falls City aquifer “supercharges” (fills the soil’s pores to overflowing) during winter’s wetness. A test well jointly funded by the city and the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed their hypothesis. But that was just the science — the “straightforward part” of the town’s dilemma, according to Kemper. To solve the trickier equation, the frayed relationships among neighbors, Kemper facilitated a series of public forums convened by city residents. Several solutions have emerged to quell the floods and, at the same time, mend the rifts. Meanwhile, Kemper is designing an engineered solution to support the locally generated plans for flood mitigation.