December 10, 2020

Lessons learned from a decade on Oregon’s Big River

The Willamette River is the largest watershed in Oregon’s borders: Our gift and our responsibility. Fortunately, we have a stronger foundation to build on than ever before.

The year 2020 has boggled both hearts and minds. With each new turn of events, the deep-set systems of racism, environmental harm and underinvestment in public health loom larger and more urgent in our country. I admit I’ve wondered: What could the learnings of one foundation’s river health program possibly mean in the context of this moment? But while the Willamette River initiative (WRI) was about the river, it was also about people. And it turns out that what we learned about investing in people — in learning, community-building, collaboration and inclusion — couldn’t be more pertinent than right now. I’m thrilled to share a snapshot of findings and lessons learned from an in-depth evaluation of Meyer’s Willamette River Initiative, an effort to improve the health of “Oregon’s Big River” that invested more than $20 million in grants between 2008 and 2019.

How can we know whether the WRI made the Willamette River healthier? The answer is complicated, but no more complicated than the river system itself. The Willamette is the largest river within Oregon’s borders: It runs through the state’s largest cities. It waters farms. It provides drinking water. It supports many of the state’s iconic wildlife and fish, including endangered salmon. It starts in smaller tributary rivers that flow through pristine forests and logging operations and through dams that minimize flooding but drastically alter its natural rhythms. With every rain, it receives a cocktail of chemicals, toxins and heavy metals from water that passes over fields and streets. This complex set of variables makes it impossible to make a causal link between Meyer’s investment and the river’s health at a given point in time. But what we can measure is the impact the WRI had on the ability of people and organizations to work more effectively on behalf of the river. Meyer invested in strategies that decades of ecological research and on-the-ground practice told us would have the best shot at putting our river on a trajectory of health. And we know that the number of projects meeting that criteria increased about 1,500% over the course of the WRI, a pace and scale never before seen in this river system.

The evaluation also looks at diversity, equity and inclusion.

When the WRI began, we asked: Who is working on watershed restoration in the Willamette Basin and how can we support them to increase the scale and pace of their efforts, be more strategic and be more effective? Like many freshwater conservation efforts across the U.S., the WRI defined “watershed restoration” from a dominant-culture, Western-science mindset. Consequently, the grantees and partners of the initiative were overwhelmingly white.

At the time, we didn’t consider the demographics of those organizations or whose goals and values were represented in their approach to the work. In 2015, as Meyer paused most of its grantmaking and restructured its efforts to better work toward equity in Oregon, the WRI acknowledged its own whiteness and adopted a new goal to advance diversity, equity and inclusion within the movement for a healthier Willamette River system. With only a few years left in the initiative to make progress in this area, we invited the WRI’s core grantees to learn with us and began building relationships with leaders of color, Indigenous leaders and community-based organizations whose work connected with river health.

To measure the WRI’s impact, we worked with a team of evaluators at the Portland-based consulting firm Dialogues In Action. Their participatory approach centered interviewees as co-owners of the story, in much the same way the WRI set out to work with its grantees and partners. With data from nearly 100 interviews and a quantitative survey, the evaluation report is a trove of findings and analysis that get at the impact the WRI had on people and systems, along with lessons about the WRI’s approach and recommendations for the future.

So, what did we learn? Here are some highlights, and for the full picture, you can download the report here.

The pace, scale and strategic nature of river restoration work in the Willamette River Basin has increased. Interviewees reported being able to do more projects, to do them better and to target them in the areas most likely to have a positive impact on habitat and river health. Before the WRI, most restoration efforts were disconnected from each other and done in a more opportunistic way as grant funding became available.

People are seeing their work as part of a larger vision for a healthy river. Whereas individual organizations were working in relative isolation before, the evaluation tells us that the WRI succeeded in fostering a culture of collaboration and a sense that “we’re all in this together.” For a large river system with no basin-wide authority or management plan, this is a notable accomplishment. People have started to see themselves as part of a team with a common vision. Competition is still a factor, of course; funding is finite. But the data show that a collaboration mindset is now part of the DNA of many former WRI grantees. They are asking the question of “How can we do more together than we can apart?” and several regional collaborations have grown from the grass roots up. The evaluation gives us reason to believe that these partnerships — in essence, a knitting together of the social fabric that supports river work — will live beyond the WRI and make the system more resilient to changes and challenges. Read more about collaboration through the WRI in this case study.

WRI grantees are beginning to center diversity, equity and inclusion in their work. By the time the WRI adopted a DEI goal, we were about two-thirds of the way through the initiative. We stayed on course with our original goals: to improve the river’s health, to increase coordination among those working on it and to build a strong foundation for improving river health into the future. Rather than changing course entirely, we kept on with the goals and grantees we’d been working with for nearly seven years but introduced a new conversation. We invited a core set of 15 grantees, a group of white-led, mainstream organizations, to immerse themselves in yearlong learning cohorts with the Center for Diversity and the Environment. All 15 opted in, and most are now engaged in ongoing partnerships and individual work to advance DEI. The civil unrest of this year has underscored the need for white people to step forward into the cause of anti-racism and to stay in it, beyond Instagram posts and reactions in the moment. Although time will tell, the evaluation shows early and promising evidence that this is the start of deeper, transformational change across the field of watershed restoration in the Willamette. A major focus of that change must be a vastly increased investment in leaders of color, Indigenous leaders and community-based organizations whose work connects with river health.

The evaluation gives us much to celebrate, but it also points to challenges that will need attention. Tracking and measuring changes in river health as a result of specific restoration actions is difficult, and this became only clearer through the WRI’s investments in monitoring. Yet, people long for the ability to tell a clear, simple story about the river’s state and restoration’s impact. This is an area of great need and potential, and though the WRI didn’t get as far as people hoped in these areas, the evaluation shares lessons learned that can inform future efforts.

Closely connected to “the what” of the WRI’s impact is “the how.” The data from the evaluation point to a few lessons from the WRI’s strategies that made the biggest difference.

Long-term capacity funding. A core approach of the WRI was to provide multi-year capacity grants. This funding allowed organizations to hire project managers, retain them year after year and give them the flexibility to develop projects in a strategic way. In order to be strategic — to restore high-priority areas that would have the biggest ecological impact — organizations needed funding to build relationships with streamside landowners. In many cases, this meant building trust with people who weren’t necessarily inclined to want to work with them. Some of the highest-impact projects funded by the WRI came after years of relationship building and intensive planning, followed by multiple phases of implementation that, all told, spanned the entire duration of the WRI. Meyer’s 10-year commitment to fund in the Willamette made these projects possible. Read more of the WRI’s approach to funding in this case study.

Grantmaking and network-weaving as companion strategies. The WRI treated funding and convening as equally important to build a community in support of the river, and each strategy informed the other. WRI staff spent significant time in the field getting to know grantees and partners. When challenges came up, there was a deep well of trust to draw from. This allowed people to be more honest about failures, learn from them and adapt. It also helped build a supportive community. The initiative’s Within Our Reach conference was frequently named as one of the most valuable aspects of the WRI: It provided time and space for people to share their work, celebrate successes and really see each other — a “luxury” that hadn’t existed before. Investing in the wholeness of people, not just in their role in achieving the stated outcome of a specific grant, allowed people to feel their worth and come to see themselves as part of a team. That mentality is durable and continues; it marked a culture shift in the field. Read more about Within Our Reach in this case study.

Going far by going together. The WRI built on the idea of a “Team Willamette” on a number of levels. In the tributaries, the WRI supported a cohort of seven watershed councils that worked closely together over 10 years to share strategies and bolster each other through challenges; on the mainstem, a working group of watershed councils, land trusts and others formed a partnership that went on to secure a six-year commitment of $7 million from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. The idea of building capacity not just as individual organizations, but as a community, was also essential to the WRI’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.

For white-led mainstream groups, this was new territory, and they stepped into it together. The evaluation tells us that this cohort approach — building upon the years of trust and collaboration they had built through the WRI — was pivotal in the shift toward centering DEI in a relatively short period of time. The need for a supportive network also became clear in the WRI’s early efforts to build relationships with leaders of color and Indigenous leaders. Although the WRI had supported peer-to-peer learning among white-led watershed groups for years, this kind of investment was completely lacking for community-based organizations. We saw this imbalance of resources in sharp relief after commissioning an assessment of the field’s capacity for culturally relevant environmental education. The WRI began supporting a cohort of leaders of color and Indigenous leaders, and even with only a year and a half left in the initiative, participants felt a significant impact. Having the ability to come together as peers, learn from one another and work through their experiences of systemic racism gave cohort members a system of support and a new sense of hope. Read more about the cohort approach to DEI in this case study.

As much as the evaluation reflects on the past, it’s also a story that brings us to the present.

In the Willamette Basin, as in our nation right now, moving toward a better future will require reckoning with deep-seated systems of injustice and environmental harm. It will require healing and coming together across differences to think more like a watershed; like a circulatory system; like a community. It won’t be easy, and in some ways 2020 has shown us there’s more work to do than ever. But fortunately in the Willamette Valley, we can confidently say that we have a stronger foundation to build upon than ever before.

And that’s a message of hope.

Cristina