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Group endured early growing pains but is stable and engaged in many watershed projects

PHOTO COURTESY OF CROOKED RIVER WATERSHED COUNCIL - The Crooked River Watershed Council has reached its 25th anniversary and is engaged in many different projects.

The Crooked River Watershed Council is currently operated by a three-person staff and a 16-member board of directors.

The council has been involved in many conservation projects in recent years and is led by a coordinator, Chris Gannon, who has been on staff for the past eight years. The board is represented by many different interests from city and county government to private timber to irrigated communities.

Things are stable, and forward-looking plans for the council appear promising.

It wasn't always this stable. Twenty-five years ago, when citizens banded together to form the watershed council, its function and its future were not so defined.

John Breese, who has been a board member for much of the council's 25-year history and played a role with his wife, Lynn, in its formation, remembers that there was a need for such an organization.

In 1994, the Breeses and other citizens got together and wrote a letter to the Crook County Court asking that a watershed council be formed. Prior to 1994, there had been a long history with watersheds in Oregon, but they were governed by the Oregon Watershed Improvement Coalition (OWIC).

"That was a group that was started out of Oregon State University," Breese said.

Efforts were afoot at that time at the state and local levels to get citizens involved in the process. "That got the Legislature to announce that we would have watershed councils and that we would divide the state into watersheds," Breese said.

House Bill 3441, guiding legislation for council formation, unanimously passed during the 1995 session. The bill mandated that watershed councils be voluntary organizations and be citizen-based and comprised of all interested stakeholders.

"Each county had to establish that," Breese noted. "The original board members were appointed by the county court."

The Crooked River Watershed is a sub-watershed that covers about 2.9 million acres in parts of seven different counties in Central Oregon. Communities in the watershed include Prineville, Post, Paulina, Brothers, Powell Butte, Terrebonne and Culver.

The primary function of the watershed council is to identify watershed conditions and develop plans and projects to protect or improve watershed conditions. In addition, the council provides education about watershed conditions and functions, and monitors projects and conditions of the watershed.

In its early days, the watershed council experienced its share of growing pains. Lynn Breese remembers the council feeling out how it would function.

"I think we were trying to develop an understanding of what a watershed is and what kinds of things can be done," she said, "and we were working out relationships with the federal agencies."

The group wasn't completely without guidance at the time. John remembers that state leaders gave the local council quite a bit of help and directed it. That direction was primarily centered on keeping the council busy with projects.

"Let's get a project going. Let's get a project going," he said.

As a result, the group got overextended and experienced a lot of growing pains from a financial standpoint. Helping provide financial guidance was Josh Smith, a city planning employee who joined the board in 2005.

"There was a period with the first three or four coordinators that they were over their skis," Smith said. "They knew their stuff ecologically, but they didn't know the budgeting side."

Smith, who is now the board treasurer, explained that when an organization is working with grants, they don't actually get the money before the project begins. Instead, they have to complete the project, then ask for reimbursement.

"Trying to figure that out in the flow was a challenge for more of these science-minded people," he said.

The lacking budgetary skills was one of a few different reasons that the watershed council saw high turnover at the coordinator position. Eleven different people have held the lead staff position during the 25-year history of the council, but most of them did not hold the job very long.

"It was very contentious," John remembers. "We had several coordinators who didn't work out at all and then several who were really good but then moved on."

Finally, eight years ago, Gannon took over the position and has been there ever since and has no plans to leave any time soon. He acknowledges that the financial piece of the job can be daunting.

"Being a council coordinator in Oregon is not the easiest assignment, mostly because of this never having enough funds to do your work," he said. "You are constantly chasing money."

But that hasn't stopped him and watershed council staff from getting projects done. He points to removal of Stearns Dam in Crooked River, completion of the People's Irrigation Ditch, and work on the Crooked River Wetlands Complex as recent, visible examples of the council's work.

"Depending on where we are in the watershed, the types of projects we do might shift a little bit," Gannon said. "The Upper Country above Prineville Reservoir is mostly focused on upland-type issues around juniper and getting the watershed back to its proper functioning condition. In the lower part where it is more irrigated, and ag, and more diversions, we have really focused on getting the anadromous fish (such as salmon and steelhead) past barriers."

These days, the watershed council has the autonomy to pick what projects they would like to pursue — but that latitude comes with a catch. Smith explains that projects have a better chance of getting funding from the state if they align with its current goals.

But the projects they have been able to complete have benefitted not only agencies in Crook County, but elsewhere throughout Central Oregon.

Scott Turo, a 14-year watershed council board member who is the habitat program supervisor for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, sees high value in the organization and what it does for the Tribes.

He explains that the Tribes treaty, which dates back to 1855, set aside what are known as ceded lands, where the Tribes ceded the right of ownership over to the federal government. In turn, they reserved the right to fish, hunt and more like all other citizens of the country.

"Now in the modern sense, all of those resources are connected — we are talking about watersheds, we are talking about populations that cross lots of political boundaries and things like that," Turo said. "So for the Tribes to realize the elements of that treaty and be able to continue to harvest fish and wildlife and do things out on ceded lands, they need to have a lot of strong partnerships."

Turo went on to note that half of the ceded lands are on private lands, so the rights are not necessarily valid because you have to get permission to do those things.

"The one thing that is important with the Tribes is the relationships with other groups that are managing and restoring and doing the protective things on those private lands to make sure that the fish and wildlife and other things that don't know these political boundaries or private boundaries are still there," he said, "and one of the groups that we interact with across that landscape is the (Crooked River) Watershed Council."

After a quarter century, leaders of the watershed council feel the organization has come a long way from its challenging beginnings. As one example, Lynn Breese notes that coordination with the federal agencies has improved through the years.

"They really do participate, which doesn't mean that they get to make the decisions up above, but they are good communicators so they can help take our message to the agencies," she said. "There is a long way to go, but I think we have got a good beginning."

Meanwhile, the council continues to pursue projects and has a general idea where future work might take place. Gannon notes that right now, work is primarily focused on fish issues on the lower portion of the watershed, but could eventually shift in focus.

"We will be winding up something else, and that something else is probably going to be the Upper County," he said. "It's probably going to be a more conventional, traditional watershed approach where we are really trying to get large acreages in better shape."

"I think we are in a good position," John Breese added. "We have a stable staff, and we have plenty of projects in front of them."

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