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MailTribune.com
  • Medford makes the White House

  • The Rogue River's salmon runs and a project meant to improve them received some unique face time last Friday from President Obama, who reaffirmed the universal credo that neither fishermen nor politicians will let the facts get in the way of a good story.
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  • The Rogue River's salmon runs and a project meant to improve them received some unique face time last Friday from President Obama, who reaffirmed the universal credo that neither fishermen nor politicians will let the facts get in the way of a good story.
    In a speech during the Conservation Conference in Washington, D.C., Obama lauded a new program in which the city of Medford will help restore Rogue River basin riparian zones to offset impacts of unnaturally warm water released into the Rogue from its wastewater treatment plant.
    Obama got the gist of the project right — that helping salmon doesn't have to come at the expense of industry and can be cheaper than less salmon-friendly alternatives.
    The details? Not so much.
    At least he didn't call it the Rouge River.
    "Well, he got the spawning salmon right," says Cory Crebbin, Medford's public works manager. "It's nice when the president notices, even if he gets an inaccurate briefing on it."
    Obama's speech to conservation leaders was crafted to highlight how choosing between a healthy environment and a healthy economy was "a false choice" and he leaned on the Rogue for his example.
    "A while back, I heard a story about the Rogue River in Oregon," according to a copy of his speech provided by the White House.
    "Every year, the Rogue is filled with salmon swimming upstream to spawn. But because factories were allowed to (sic) — allowing warm water to run back into the river, the temperature was becoming too high for the salmon to survive.
    "So to fix the problem, the town could have required the company to buy expensive cooling equipment, but that would have hurt the local economy. Instead, they decided to pay farmers and ranchers to plant trees along the banks of the river, and that helped to cool the water at a fraction of the cost. So it worked for business; it worked for farmers; it worked for salmon.
    "And those are the kinds of ideas that we need in this country — ideas that preserve our environment, protect our bottom line, and connect more Americans to the great outdoors."
    The "factories" Obama refers to is actually Medford's Regional Water Reclamation Facility off Kirtland Road, where treated effluent is discharged into the Rogue at temperatures higher than state and federal standards.
    The warm water doesn't keep spawning salmon from surviving. Not one. It does, however, add to the overall warming of the Rogue in the fall, thus accelerating incubation of salmon eggs laid in the gravel and harming infant salmon survival rates.
    There is no town requiring anything here, but the state Department of Environmental Quality is. And the "company" actually is the city of Medford.
    As part of renewing an operating permit for the facility, the DEQ has set lower temperature standards for the treated effluent and requires the city to account for them.
    Medford itself considered a $15 million alternative of adding two "chillers" to cool the effluent before it's discharged into the Rogue.
    In the end, however, it pitched an $8.3 million plan to restore 38 miles of riparian areas that collectively would provide enough shade to cool the mainstem and tributaries enough to offset the warmth added by the treated effluent.
    The city hired The Freshwater Trust to handle the restoration, which will be on private lands and is all-voluntary. Landowners likely will be paid for easements to do the work and conduct long-term monitoring to prove that the shading effect is occurring.
    The DEQ and federal Environmental Protection Agency signed off in December on what is known as the Thermal Credit Trading Program. It is being hailed as an example of how cities such as Medford can go green while saving some green, that you can simultaneously help the environment and the bottom line.
    But it hasn't worked for business. It hasn't worked for farmers. It hasn't worked for salmon.
    That's because it hasn't started yet.
    "It will work, though," says Jon Gasik, the DEQ senior engineer who worked on the permit renewal.
    The Freshwater Trust President Joe Whitworth, who was in the audience, had an inkling that this program might get dropped into the speech and got a big charge in hearing it, butchered and all.
    "In some sense, the fact that he got the details garbled is less relevant," Whitworth says. "Jobs verses the environment as a false choice is a good takeaway.
    "This says there's a new way of doing business and we're doing it in Southern Oregon," he says.
    A White House official says word of the project has been kicking around Washington for a while, and Obama first made reference to it in a town hall meeting in Illinois last August.
    And while he may not have gotten the exact details right, "he knew the story and why it was important," the official says.
    What Obama might not know is the project's not your run-of-the-mill mitigation program, in which agencies and businesses get credit for habitat projects completed whether or not the projects survive.
    These new riparian projects must be proven to cool the basin's water, must be verified as effective by a neutral third party and must be maintained for up to 20 years or Medford gets penalized.
    "Did he mention no federal money was involved?" Crebbin asks.
    No, he didn't.
    But at least he mentioned the program, kind of.
    Another credo of politics is that there's no such thing as good publicity or bad publicity — it's all publicity, as long as they spell your name right.
    "It's something when little ol' Medford gets some buzz in Washington," Crebbin says.
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman
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