Finding common ground in the water that sustains us

At first glance, Oregon’s Willamette River and the Río Laja in the Mexican state of Guanajuato look starkly different.

The two rivers’ mouths are 2,600 miles apart. And while the Willamette Valley is verdant and rainy, the Laja runs through semi-arid lands with few trees. Salmon, so central to the Oregonian ethos, aren’t found there.

Though their climate and ecology may differ, six restoration experts from Guanajuato visited Oregon this month to explore a commonality between two places: Water and the communities it connects.

“Water is the base element for all ecosystems,” said Mario Hernández Peña, director of the botanical garden and nature preserve El Charco del Ingenio, who traveled to Oregon as part of the June 2017 exchange. “No matter where in the world you are, it’s a common resource.”

The visit was the latest highlight of an international partnership the two basins launched in 2015 as part of the Willamette community’s receipt of the 2012 Thiess International Riverprize. The award, which recognizes exemplary efforts in river protection and restoration, includes an opportunity to collaborate with a watershed outside the prize winner's home country in an exchange program known as Twinning. Meyer's Willamette River Initiative stewards the project on behalf of the basin's restoration community.

“It’s so valuable to be able to talk, to connect, and to learn from our international peers about how they approach similar watershed conservation challenges in a different social and environmental context,” said Tara Davis, coordinator of the Twinning project.

Many of the Willamette’s biggest watershed health challenges are also present in the Laja. Restoration practitioners in both basins are working to improve water quality, increase migratory bird habitat, foster community engagement and restore ecological function to former gravel mines. And both basins face competing priorities for how water is managed and allocated.

The Twinning project is designed to encourage dialogue about how to tackle those challenges through repeated visits to one another’s home turf. But just as importantly, the project has yielded fruitful relationships between people with a common interest in protecting water in the Willamette Basin and Mexico, a country with strong connections to Oregon.

One-in-eight Oregonians identify as Latino, many of them with Mexican heritage. The Willamette Basin includes some of Oregon’s largest and fastest-growing Latino communities.

“At a time when the public relationship with Mexico is framed in terms of division and exclusion, a project that focuses on building collaborative relationships between conservation professionals from both countries is particularly meaningful,” said Allison Hensey, director of the Willamette River Initiative.

Already, the Twinning partnership has revealed promising collaboration opportunities.

Recognizing that some migratory bird species spend time in both watersheds, partners from the Willamette and Laja have teamed up to explore opportunities to monitor bird populations and use the data to prioritize habitat restoration.

Participants in the June exchange hoped to take the Twinning partnership a step further, leaving with inspiration for increased collaboration in the Rio Laja watershed and an idea for a future project the two basins could tackle together. It didn’t take long for a theme to emerge.

As exchange partners traveled up and down the Willamette River touring projects and meeting with partners, the conversation always came back to people.

“How do you get the public to care about restoration when you’re working in such an urban environment?” Laja partner Javier Vega Ruiz asked as the group toured Talking Water Gardens, a wetland restoration and water treatment project in Albany.

Willamette partners shared a number of techniques, such as hosting school students for on-site science lessons and designing public spaces into restoration plans, but acknowledged community engagement is a challenge in the Willamette, too.

Vega Ruiz’s question spurred others as the two sides sought to learn from one another.

How can conservation workers be better advocates for the communities hit hardest by environmental threats, particularly low-income people and racial minorities? What are the best examples of restoration work that improves ecological conditions while creating beautiful, useful community spaces? And what can we do now to shape the next generation of environmental stewards?

For Heather Medina Sauceda, a board member for the Calapooia Watershed Council who often works within Oregon’s Latino community, the exchange trip itself became an exercise in the power of human connection. Medina worked with Mario Magaña Álvarez, an Oregon State University 4-H outreach specialist to underserved communities, to bring several of Magaña Álvarez’s Latino students along for a day of the exchange.

The pair, who are both Latino, hoped exposure to Mexican leaders in science and conservation would help the teens imagine themselves in a career field that, in America, is still predominantly white.

“It’s powerful to see leaders who look like you,” Medina Sauceda said.

The exchange also held personal significance for Medina Sauceda. Born in Michigan, she grew up with a love for the outdoors that led to a career in agricultural conservation. She had never associated her career choice with the farming culture of her heritage, but interacting with the Laja visitors revealed a profound link between the two.

“I might not have realized in college why I was drawn” to conservation work, she said. “To have that tie with this group coming up from Guanajuato made me feel like it’s something deep down inside; that it has to do with that cultural connection.”

By week’s end, representatives from the two basins saw a partnership opportunity in their shared ambition to connect people through the rivers that sustain them. The migratory bird group has begun discussing ways to involve the community in its bird monitoring efforts. Other Willamette and Laja partners hope to work together on youth engagement initiatives. They are exploring the possibility of sharing environmental curriculum for students in Mexico and Oregon or launching an exchange program that pairs students from each watershed on a scientific project.

The conversation is just getting started, Medina Sauceda said, but “there’s a lot of potential for the future.”

— Kelly