11 Years of Progress: The Willamette River Initiative

After 11 years of supporting river health in the Willamette Basin, the Willamette River Initiative has ended. Learn more about how the initiative's past work has set the stage for a new chapter.

The Willamette River Initiative began in 2008 as a 10-year commitment by the Meyer Memorial Trust to make grants in support of a healthy Willamette River system.

By the end of the decade, our grantees had made big strides in river health, but it was clear the work wasn’t done. So Meyer extended the initiative while working with our grantees and partners to create a new organization that could support long-range efforts to care for our river basin. The Willamette River Network is expected to launch in early 2020, marking the end of WRI and the beginning of a new chapter in the Willamette. Learn more here.

Initiative staff continue to support the build-out of this new organization while leading a process to learn from the past 11 years and apply those lessons to our plans for the future.

Meyer established the Willamette River Initiative in July 2008 to improve river health by funding restoration and science on the Willamette and its tributaries. Over time, its grantmaking would expand to include advocacy, community outreach and other actions related to river health. Since then, the initiative has awarded more than $20 million in grants and helped ignite a new era of restoration progress on the Willamette.

The approach was simple: By making a sustained, focused investment in the Willamette, WRI aimed to unlock the potential for bigger, more effective river restoration. That meant making long-term funding commitments to groups working strategically toward river health. Just as importantly, it meant providing opportunities for groups across the region to develop and work together toward common goals. 

Much of the initiative’s grantmaking targeted efforts to restore natural systems on the mainstem Willamette River and in seven key tributaries. The initiative partnered with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Bonneville Power Administration to pool financial resources for this work, dramatically increasing the overall investment in the Willamette. It also partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to provide long-term backbone support services for the initiative and its grantees. 

WRI grantees included nonprofits, scientists, public agencies and environmental justice advocates, regional groups based in Portland and small nonprofits deep in the Willamette’s source tributaries. Willamette River Initiative grants helped restore habitat for federally protected salmon, helped combat invasive plants that threaten our region’s landscapes, supported efforts to better represent diverse communities in decisionmaking about the river, and funded scientific research to better understand our watershed.

Because of our grantees’ work, emerging forests now cover thousands of acres in the Willamette Basin, providing cooling shade for fish, habitat for birds and land animals and tranquil recreation space for humans. Newly-opened floodplain wetlands clean our drinking water and shelter fish and wildlife. Businesses and government agencies are rethinking their responsibility to keep rivers healthy so communities can thrive. These accomplishments have attracted international recognition, including awards from the International RiverFoundation and the Arbor Day Foundation. 

We are proud of these successes. We also recognize that if we want the Willamette to continue sustaining our communities, we must continue and expand the coordinated effort to care for our river.

As Meyer and our Willamette partners work to build a community-led Willamette River Network, we see this shift in ownership as an opportunity to set sights on a more ambitious, inclusive vision for the river. Many of the river health issues our partners strive to address are products of an unfair system designed to concentrate resources, power and influence in the hands of few while marginalizing others based on their race, gender, socioeconomic status and/or other factors. Yet the mainstream conservation movement has too often failed to include the voices of impacted communities. 

We can’t create a healthier watershed for our communities without considering who has been left out of that vision. As such, the Network’s strategy to achieve river health will be rooted in human health and equity. The Network will strive to remove barriers that exclude some communities form having a say in their river’s future and reduce the unfair exposure to water pollution and water scarcity that some communities face. It will work to achieve a future in which people and rivers thrive together.

We intend for its priorities to evolve over time as members of our growing community work together to shape its long-term vision. Join us in the continued effort to secure a healthier river for all.