Southern Oregon University has begun a student-funded program that essentially will restore the equivalent of all of the water used on campus to a creek in the Klamath River Basin, a venture school officials say will be the first of its kind on any campus in the nation.
The school has partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, making a five-year commitment to the foundation's Water Restoration Certificate program for Sevenmile Creek in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
SOU will be part of a larger effort to restore stream flows to the creek, which is described by the foundation as "critically dewatered" by irrigation and that has a lengthy section that typically goes dry in the summer.
Drawing from a student fee, SOU will pay the foundation an equivalent to the cost of its water use. The Bonneville foundation has been working with a landowner on the creek to find other ways besides an irrigation dam to meet his agricultural needs, said Todd Reeve, chief executive officer of the foundation.
The goal of the project is for the creek to run free from its source high in the Cascades to Upper Klamath Lake. Chrysten Lambert, of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust, a partner of the Bonneville foundation, said in summer the area of the creek below the irrigation dam is dry for about two miles downstream, where a spring system is located.
With the dam removed, fish, including native redband rainbow trout, would have access between the lake and the higher elevation portions of the creek, she said.
The idea for the school to get involved came from Shaun Franks, a fourth-year student at SOU, who last year was the director of sustainability for the school's student government.
The money to fund the school's portion of the project comes from the Green Fund, which is a program to support sustainability initiatives funded by a $10-15 fee students pay each term.
Last year, a previous five-year Green Fund plan was coming to an end, and Franks believed it would make more sense to set up a new one that funded projects closer to campus. The school was involved in an energy trade-off project that sent student dollars to wind farms in Idaho and Nevada, he said.
Franks drafted a new Green Fund plan, which calls for a portion of the fee to be used to help fund the nearby water restoration project. Franks' drafted Green Fund plan also allocates money to an approved project that will place solar panels on Stevenson Union and a not-yet approved sustainability center, he said.
Last April, about 90 percent of students voted to support Franks' Green Fund proposal.
The school will restore approximately 80 million gallons to the creek for five years, according to Reeve. The total project, which has other participants, will restore about 1.2 billion gallons of water in all to the creek, he said.
Reeve said water restoration in the project was accomplished by working with the landowner, who could not be reached for comment. He said it's an example of a landowner determining how best to attain both agricultural and environmental goals.
"This is a good example of that landowner finding that balance," he said.
Part of the issue the landowner had to work out to complete the deal involved water rights. Oregon laws basically tell a landowner with a water right that he must use it or lose it, Lambert said.
The project pays the landowner to lease the water rights of the stream to the environmental organizations involved, Reeve said.
An application for the permanent transfer has been filed at the Oregon Water Resources Department, Lambert said.
Coming from the mountains, the creek's water is cold, clean and excellent quality for fish habitat, said Jack Williams, senior scientist at Trout Unlimited.
"To keep water in that stream system, that's a great move for the fish," he said.
Vince Tweddell is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at email@example.com.