Kevin O’Brien, executive director of the Illinois Valley Watershed Council said 2022 was a “historic year” for the watershed during a presentation to the Josephine County Commissioners March 29.
The commissioners’ meeting was held in Grants Pass at Anne G. Basker Auditorium.
O’Brien said that the I.V. Watershed Council and I.V. Soil and Water Conservation District, which presented to the commissioners later in the meeting, “successfully reorganized at the governance level.”
He added that in recent years there has been “quite a bit of confusion” as to the specific goals and functions of the respective organizations due to an overlap in leadership, despite the fact that the Watershed Council and Conservation District “are two organizations that have very distinct missions.”
“It’s been a long haul to get to this place,” O’Brien confessed, “but we are now both autonomous at the governance level.”
The Watershed Council’s strategic planning process has been fully funded, O’Brien reported, which “will determine a lot of things that go on” over the next two to three years.
O’Brien said that the reorganization “has empowered both organizations to do their best work instead of a hybrid deal that waters down and diminishes both missions.”
According to O’Brien, the I.V. Watershed Council will be approaching the commissioners again in around three months “to lay everything out for you and get your blessing as an organization again.” A facilitator is currently working to fully distinguish the two watershed organizations.
O’Brien added that he has been “on boarding” Soil and Water Conservation District Manager John Bellville . He would like Bellville to succeed him on the Watershed Council when he retires in a few years, and has no problems with “stealing” him from the Conservation District, calling the manager “quite a find.”
Moving on, O’Brien recapped the Watershed Council securing funding “to do a really cool stream restoration project on Crooks Creek out by the Out ‘n About Treehouses” in Takilma. They placed several wood structures and a roughened channel there, which O’Brien referred to as an “invisible dam because it allows free passage for all the aquatic organisms,” and said it has “performed marvelously.”
“We’ve been very active with our stakeholder and community engagement program,” O’Brien went on. “We invested a lot of time and energy helping the district get that off the ground.”
He continued, “People have come out in droves to talk with us, not just about the illegal cannabis the year before last, but also about being safer where we live.”
O’Brien plans to step away from his position when his term is up three and a half years from now, but said, “I ain’t gonna be putting my feet up much on the desk,” adding, “It’s going to be a couple busy, aggressive years here.”
Other topics O’Brien touched on were: new water quality measuring tools in the Valley; applying for grants; and forging a stronger partnership with the Josephine County government.
“Everybody needs clean water,” O’Brien concluded. “Crystal clear water if we can.”
Commissioner Dan DeYoung clarified that since there is very little manufacturing in the Illinois Valley, most of the factors affecting water quality would stem from agricultural activity.
O’Brien said the Watershed Council is using other water quality testing programs, including those in Northern California, as a basis to know what substances to test for. He was concerned about what substances farmers use to quicken the growth of crops might be leaking into the watershed.
Commissioner John West was enthusiastic about a deeper partnership between the county and Watershed Council. He stated, “In my mind probably one of the biggest issues that the Illinois Valley faces right now is the illegal grows where the chemicals are not taken care of correctly and monitored. There is a great opportunity for those to get into the water system in the Illinois Valley… It sounds like you’re on it and I applaud you.
“Whatever I can do in my capacity to help you, and I do want to bring you to the table in our discussions and be part of that so we can work together.”
O’Brien said, “I couldn’t ask for a better present this morning,” in response to West’s invitation for deeper cooperation.
Board Chair Herman Baertschiger reminisced about the bygone days when the Illinois Valley was an “agricultural hub,” and O’Brien added that the region once housed the largest dairy in the state.
“I’d like to see us head back in that direction,” said Baertschiger. “I think it’s a great area. I’ve always said it’s actually a prettier Valley than the one we live in.”
Baertschiger concluded, “I really appreciate all your hard work.”
IVSWCD Program Manager John Bellville began his presentation by recounting that he has served in his role for just over seven months.
“I’m really looking forward to doing some moving and shaking, making the Illinois Valley a better place for the local land user and community at large,” said Bellville.
Among the projects his group has in the works: Illinois Valley Collective Mobilization for Fire and Fish; ODA Agricultural Water Quality Monitoring; Community Wildfire Defense Grant; Upper Illinois Valley Post-Fire Restoration; and Illinois Valley Fire Resiliency Oversight Group Partnership Technical Assistance.
Bellville said that I.V. Collective Mobilization for Fire and Fish is a stakeholder and community engagement program with the goal of making the Valley safer. He elaborated on some of their outreach efforts, including the recent Coffee & Quail forum at the I.V. Senior Center.
“We’re trying to plan projects not only three to five years in advance but 30 to 50 years into the future to make the Illinois Valley a really safe place for everybody and make it a really fire resilient place,” Bellville remarked.
The Conservation District manager went on to discuss a pair of “fairly sizable” grants they had just received in the last week relating to fuels reduction and vegetation replanting on scorched land. (SEE IVFROG Article)
One grant will fund the Upper Illinois River Watershed Post-Fire Restoration Project, which “will allow us to do 40 acres of site preparation work on (private) properties (damaged by the Slater Fire) and 96 acres of replanting activities on those properties and regenerate them.”
After … finished his presentation, Commissioner West commented, “I really appreciate your hard work and I’m impressed with your funding… The Illinois Valley is a great valley. It has a lot of potential that I think has been stifled over the years.”
Despite the problems with crime and illegal cannabis, West struck an optimistic tone, saying, “Hopefully we’re going to get past that, move forward and the Illinois Valley is going to be the best valley ever.”