State of Change: Lifeblood of a Region

“Understanding the complex interactions among climate systems, terrestrial systems, and human systems is essential to predicting future changes in water resources and implementing sustainable water resource management in Oregon.”
Oregon Climate Assessment Report

From the Governor's office in Salem, Lynn Peterson helps translate river science into policy through a partnership known as Willamette Water 2100. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum, OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)
From the Governor’s office in Salem, Lynn Peterson helps translate river science into policy through a partnership known as Willamette Water 2100. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum, OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications)

By Lee Anna Sherman

SALEM, Oregon – The on-screen image looks like a network of arteries, veins and capillaries. Down the middle of the page snakes a thick, bluish cord. Flanking it is a twisting web of red threads.

The illustration posted on OSU’s Oregon Explorer is indeed a picture about human health. But it’s not about blood circulation. Rather, it’s about the lifeblood of a region: the Willamette River. The bluish cord represents the river as it looks today, straight and tamed. The red threads show the intricate braid of channels, wild and rambling, that once flowed from the main stem. That was in 1850 before settlers and developers began draining and diking and damming to make way for human activities.

State of Change

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Our gains from reshaping the river (flood control, transportation, agriculture) are being weighed against the losses (despoiled habitat, destroyed wetlands, degraded riparian zones) more acutely than ever, now that climate change is raising the stakes. For in those iconic waters, which touch more than 11,000 square miles of the state, shimmers a reflection of who Oregonians are and who they aspire to be. The Explorer website puts this notion eloquently: “The Willamette River is one of the defining features of the Valley; a sinuous thread which binds us together and readily reveals our civilization’s successes and failures.”

Another eloquent voice for the river is Lynn Peterson. “The social and economic impact of the river’s health is priceless,” says Peterson, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s policy adviser on sustainable communities and transportation.

Her capitol-mall office sits just a few blocks from where the river flows, silvery and serene. Before coming to Salem, she worked in another place tightly bound to the river, Clackamas County, which bumps into I-5 and Portland on the west and wraps around Mt. Hood on the east. As chair of the county commission, Peterson wrestled with water over and over.

“Clackamas County is a microcosm of the state of Oregon,” she observes. “On one hand, it has a vast forest and watershed ecosystem. On the other, it’s part of the largest metro area in Oregon. So its water issues are very complex.”

Water, Wheels and Rails

What do streetcars have to do with rivers? What do freeways have to do with fish? What does high-speed rail have to do with the ice cubes that tumble out of your fridge? Everything, says Peterson, who started her career as a highway engineer before shifting to transportation planning for Metro, TriMet and 1000 Friends of Oregon. More cars on Oregon’s roads equal more stress on the state’s watersheds, she says. More suburbs sprawling across the landscape create grave threats to the purity and quantity of groundwater. More dwellers crowding into cities mean spiraling demands on the snow-fed, fish-filled streams that symbolize what is best about the Pacific Northwest. “We know that the way we manage population growth, transportation and land use will influence the risk of water scarcity,” Peterson notes. “But right now, we do not have the tools to plan for a future that is likely to be strongly affected by climate change.”

Enter Envision, a new software system for looking into the future of the Willamette River Basin from all sorts of angles. Developed at OSU, Envision not only can create climate scenarios based on geography, hydrology, ecology, sociology and economics, it can toss all sorts of hypothetical human decisions into the mix and see how those might play out over time.

The pressing need for powerful predictive tools prompted Peterson to lend her voice to a multi-university project called Willamette Water 2100. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and managed by OSU’s Institute for Water and Watersheds, the project uses Envision to capture the complexities of climate change, population growth and water availability in the river basin. Faculty at Portland State and the University of Oregon are collaborating with OSU’s team, led by hydologist Jeff McDonnell and engineer John Bolte, creator of Envision.

“Envision is the best available tool for answering this question: How can we protect ecosystems and better manage and predict water availability for future generations given alterations to the water cycle caused by climate variability and change, and by human activity,” McDonnell and Bolte assert.

Voicing the viewpoint of a local stakeholder in the researchers’ funding proposal to NSF, Peterson argued for “workable tools to pave the way for adaptive planning.” She says: “If you want a cleaner, greener Oregon, a computer model can help you play with the levers. But you need to run more than one model. You need to run a lot of different scenarios in order to weigh all the alternatives, to compare and contrast so that you get the best outcome — the one that’s closest to your articulated goal. That’s what Envision lets you do.”

Ramping It Up

As Oregon’s cities, counties and other jurisdictions seek climate adaptation strategies, its universities contribute what Peterson calls the “spirit and culture of experimentation.” Toss in Oregon’s status as the “planning mecca of the United States,” she says, and you have a potent force for effective action.

“No state has pushed sustainability as far as Oregon has,” Peterson asserts. “Oregon has been working on clean air and clean water for 35 years. Now, with global climate change, we’ve raised the goals higher. We know how to do it. We just need to ramp it up.”