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Source Water Protection in a Climate of Change: Perspectives from a Publicly-Owned Utility

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  • The McKenzie River serves as the sole source of drinking water for nearly 200,000 residents in Eugene, OR. The McKenzie River is also home to a number of threatened and endangered fish species. Whereas the majority of the upper watershed is forested, areas of rural development and agriculture occur along the valley floor. The cities of Springfield and Eugene are located near the river’s mouth. There are numerous dams in the system that provides flood control and hydroelectric power for the region. Climate change has the potential to affect the river and the services provided by it to local residents and aquatic life. Models predict that climate change will dramatically affect storm and weather patterns as well as the timing and extent of the seasonal snowmelt. The area is also experiencing significant population growth, a trend that is anticipated to continue over the course of the next few decades. The development pressures accompanying population growth and rural expansion can also have profound impacts on the river. This impact is perhaps most evident when considering changes to the ecologically-critical riparian and floodplain areas. EWEB has taken an active role in assessing the McKenzie’s water quality and the health of the riparian zone in face of developmental pressures. EWEB oversees an extensive water quality monitoring program that tracks conventional water quality parameters as well as some of the emerging contaminants of concern often associated with increased development such as flame retardants and pharmaceuticals. EWEB and its partners also conducted an extensive critique of the existing regulations pertaining to floodplains and riparian zones and identified significant gaps that allowed for the continued degradation of these ecologically sensitive resources. Effective riparian and floodplain management are critical for economic stability, ecologic resiliency, and adaptation in response to a climate of change. Recent experiences suggest that increased regulations may not be the most effective means for achieving riparian/floodplain protection due to property rights concerns. In the long run, voluntary incentives such as the promotion of agricultural and ecosystem services may prove to be more effective mechanisms for protecting these resources.
  • Presented at The Oregon Water Conference, May 24-25, 2011, Corvallis, OR.
  • KEYWORDS: Floodplain, Agriculture, Climate change, Riparian, Water quality, Ecosystem services
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