Floodplain restoration at Harkens Lake

Gary Horning and his son Steve grow many iconic Willamette Valley crops on their family farm near Monroe, Oregon, including grass seed and hazelnuts. But soon the Hornings will add a different kind of crop to the list -- native trees like black cottonwood and Oregon ash that once formed a forest where their farm is now.

The Willamette River forms the eastern border of the Hornings’ farm, and every year the river turns their riverfront field into a seasonal lake. The Hornings’ decision to convert this part of the floodplain, known as Harkens Lake, back into a forest prompted them to work with Corvallis-based Greenbelt Land Trust to secure a conservation easement for a piece of their property. No trees have been planted yet, but after years of negotiating the terms of the easement, closing the deal was a big victory for all parties.

In essence, instead of farming crops on that field, the Hornings will farm habitat. They will let the Willamette reclaim a small but important piece of its historic floodplain, and, in doing so, repurpose a gravelly field that is costly and difficult to farm. It’s a win for both the farmers and the river, and it’s a model being repeated at a number of sites up and down the Willamette.

These restoration efforts are supported by a unique funding program, the Willamette Special Investment Partnership (SIP). In 2008, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) committed $6 million to restoring properties along the Willamette River. OWEB is a state agency funded in large part by proceeds from the Oregon Lottery, which by public initiative commits a percentage of its revenue to watershed enhancement. Dollars for the SIP also come from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which is required to fund habitat projects that benefit salmon as part of the 2008 Willamette Biological Opinion.

Around the time OWEB was developing the Willamette SIP, the Meyer Memorial Trust began focusing attention on the river as well. The mainstem was a primary target for Meyer, as it held great potential for increasing floodplain function and habitat. And though Oregon has a strong network of watershed councils working in smaller basins, there were no groups dedicated to working on the Willamette’s main channel. With common interests and restoration priorities, OWEB and Meyer entered into a unique public-private funding partnership as part of the mainstem strategy of the Willamette River Initiative.

Four years later, OWEB and Meyer have supported nine large-scale mainstem projects. It’s a big change; before the SIP only one new restoration project had been initiated since 2000 on the main Willamette upstream of Portland.

In September 2012, Greenbelt held an event to celebrate the completion of nearly 600 total acres of conservation easements and acquisition at Harkens and another site downstream, Horseshoe Lake. The celebration drew over 100 people, a diverse mix of folks from conservation groups, public agencies and the farming community.

Like many Willamette Valley farmers, the Hornings have deep roots here. They’ve been farming at Harkens Lake for four generations. For decades they have observed how the river moves and shapes their land. And now, supported by a public funder, a private funder, and a local land trust, they’ll take the lead on restoring the forest once cleared for crops. Makes sense, because no one knows better how to cultivate plants on that rocky, unpredictable field than Gary and Steve. 

-Cristina Watson, WRI