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How Conservation Is Getting a 21st-Century Overhaul

The Freshwater Trust is leveraging technology, data and analytics to focus on “outcome-based conservation.” The group’s president talks about why this kind of conservation is actually about building a new sector of the economy.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Oregon’s Salmon River begins on the south slope of Mt. Hood and flows for 33 miles (53km) before entering the Sandy River. The Freshwater Trust has been working on restoration projects within the Sandy River Basin for decades.The Freshwater Trust

The seriousness of our environmental situation today calls for the implementation of new tools and technology, and more focus on outcomes instead of procedure. That’s the idea behind the work done today by the Freshwater Trust (TFT).

The organization, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, works to restore the health of watersheds by using very precise environmental accounting. “We analyze data, model outcomes and develop rigorous systems and protocols to quantify the environmental benefits of every restoration action,” TFT explains on its website. “We still count the number of trees we planted alongside a river, but then we take it a step further and use technology to identify how much solar energy will be blocked by those trees, keeping the water cool, or how much runoff is absorbed by the trees, keeping the water clean. We employ tools that tell us how and where a conservation project will have the largest overall benefit for a watershed.”

This kind of conservation work is not just about benefiting the environment, it’s also about aiding the economy, according to TFT’s president, Joe Whitworth. He recently spoke to Water Deeply about how to give conservation work a 21st-century overhaul.

Water Deeply: What does the Freshwater Trust do?

Joe Whitworth: It started decades ago as a very traditional not-for-profit. We were focused on advocacy and litigation because that was the only way you got movement back then. We were the first wild-fish group in the Northwest.

But we figured out that we had to do more than simply stop bad things from happening. We had to make some good things happen.

That’s when we conceived of a water trust, which would lease or purchase excess irrigation water from landowners and put it in the stream for the benefit of the environment. That model has now been replicated around the West and internationally.

Water Deeply: You’ve also been leveraging new technology to do conservation work better.

Whitworth: We got really serious about the actual state of our waterways versus the actual effort that we are making to manage those properly. That led us into data and analytics and really calling into question all the pieces that have been in play in managing the resources and how that money is getting spent.

Where we find ourselves today is really focused on using those tools that are now available to drive the kind of change that we are going to need in order to operate on Earth in the 21st century.

Still Creek is a tributary of the Zigzag River located within Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest. The Freshwater Trust has developed a tablet-optimized app to make collecting and analyzing data on their projects more accurate and efficient. (The Freshwater Trust)

Still Creek is a tributary of the Zigzag River located within Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest. The Freshwater Trust has developed a tablet-optimized app to make collecting and analyzing data on their projects more accurate and efficient. (The Freshwater Trust)

Water Deeply: What are some of the tools or technologies you are using?

Whitworth: We built some software to source, qualify, execute and certify projects. It’s a project-management tool that allows anyone to do restoration projects with a high degree of quality and that was our first step.

We learned there are 16 ways to fix a river – there aren’t 16 million or 16,000 – and it comes down to restoring form and function and it can be as simple as planting trees or fencing out livestock. But everyone in the business is chasing a small denominator of things. We can speed those things up, but we want to put effort where it is best served.

The first generation of our modern environmental era began in the late 60s, early 70s, and yet we still have 55 percent of our nation’s waterways that are not fishable, swimmable, drinkable. The tools that we have been using are in need of an overhaul or some additions.

Water Deeply: How is what you’re doing different?

Whitworth: Using publicly available information, we figured out how to essentially X-ray nature. That ability to X-ray nature – that’s shorthand – but it’s really what we are talking about doing. We can overlay different types of soil, aspects, slopes, the presence or absence of different contours or roughing features on the land – a tree or side channels – and that can tell us where we need to spend our time on a particular project.

Water Deeply: Can you give me an example of this?

Whitworth: There is a city that we worked with and, like every city, they had to treat wastewater before releasing it back into the environment, but the process heats up the water. In order to comply with the Clean Water Act, they have to cool it back down before putting it into the waterway; otherwise it can impact fish and other species. Most cities have used cooling towers or a refrigerator feature within the plant. In this case, they were going to dig a hole and pump the water into the hole until it cooled and then put it back into the waterway. It would have cost $17.5 million to $20 million.

Instead we worked with them to meet their Clean Water Act compliance for only $6 million by having landowners plant trees that would shade and cool the water, which would be quantified as credits (measured in kilocalories) the city could buy. The city’s obligation was 300 million kilocalories, but our project generated twice that.

So, they are in compliance and saving money. They are also putting local folks to work to source and plant native seed stocks and are leasing ground from local landowners – those are two great things for the local economy. From a fish and conservation perspective, the trees do more than provide shade, they can stabilize the bank, keep sediment from going in and sequester carbon.

Water Deeply: Why is this strategy so critical?

Whitworth: The point at this juncture in history is not just to hold the line; just holding the line would have been a great thing to do at the dawn of the industrial age, but now we have to make real gains. I can make a pretty good argument that the environmental war is over and the greens won, but they have won only on paper. We don’t need any more or better environmental words on paper; what we need is a through-line from those words on paper to what is actually happening on the ground and the ability to adapt and manage in real time.

Water Deeply: Your organization does “outcome-based conservation” – what does that mean?

Whitworth: My training is legal training and in the second year of law school they teach you all the steps and procedures that need to be gone through when a decision is made and what you have to do is figure out which step did they skip or do inadequately so you can just stop them.

That strategy led to a very successful period within the environmental movement, which is procedure-based environmentalism – just make them follow the rules harder.

It’s important – it helped us to move away from burning rivers and created environmental wins. But now we are so focused on the rules that we have forgotten what’s happening on the ground. Just because we win in court doesn’t mean we win anything on the ground.

If we can take some of the procedural stuff out of the way by leveraging the technology that’s here, we can focus on outcomes rather than the process.

For example, in California, in the Salinas Valley, we can look at the basin and know that if you have salt-water intrusion 12 miles [20km] inland, it will be ruinous to crops. So we need to set up a groundwater budget so that we replenish the aquifer. Let’s look at how to transition current cropping from lettuce to broccoli, or berries to grapes, and use less water and make more money.

And then we can track progress not just as an individual farmer, but as an entire basin trying to collectively restore the aquifer to ensure we have food not just this year and next year but for as long as we want to.

It’s similar to individual transferrable quotas with fisheries. Those don’t work perfectly unless the total allowable catch is set – this is the limit within which we can catch the fish, and the fish population will regenerate itself so we can catch fish for a long time.

Then you distribute your quotas not based on absolute rights to numbers of fish but on a prorated share that is tiered to what is the optimal amount. We can do the same kind of things with water.

Water Deeply: You said this is economic work, not just environmental – what do you mean?

Whitworth: What we are talking about ultimately is building out an entire new sector of the economy. We need local folks taking local action with management tools that allow them to perform to certain criteria and to track where we are starting from and going to in real time.

The big challenge is getting the environment and economy in the right relation to each other. That’s going to mean some pretty big changes in how people operate. Finance is important and we’re going to return value to investors, but we’re going to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the underlying assets of our communities or our environment. It’s very different from the 1955 view, that you had purely commercial on one hand and purely charitable on the other. The best financial plays now are the ones that are the most sustainable.

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