When this initiative began in 2008, floodplain restoration on the mainstem Willamette River was scarce, with just a few projects begun and only one large-scale project underway along the 160 miles upstream of Willamette Falls. Few of the region’s river restoration groups identified the mainstem Willamette as part of their territory, viewing the scale of its challenges as too big to tackle.
Habitat restoration in the Willamette’s wide floodplain often involves large-scale, complicated, risky work that may take many years to complete. Without long-term funding to cover extensive outreach and engagement, project planning, restoration work and stewardship, these projects were impossible.
WRI and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) worked with scientists to identify river reaches with the greatest potential for restoration. Then, we encouraged conservation groups to focus on the mainstem, supported their capacity to seek out new projects and agreed to fund projects for the long term. As restoration opportunities began to take shape, WRI and OWEB, later joined by and the Bonneville Power Administration, partnered to leverage each group’s resources into a $2+ million-per-year coordinated investment in Willamette River restoration.
Since then, more than a dozen groups have begun working on the Willamette mainstem, resulting in 24 new significant floodplain restoration projects. It’s a pace and scale of restoration this river has never seen, and it’s already yielding measurable gains for the river. At the confluence of the Middle Fork and Coast Fork Willamette rivers near Eugene, water temperatures in defunct gravel-mining ponds dropped a critical several degrees after crews reconnected them to the river, vastly improving their ability to serve as needed cold water refuges for endangered native fish. That's just one of many examples of the tangible impact these restoration projects have had on the Willamette.