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Need water? First, protect the source

Here we are again, stuck in the middle of a drought that threatens famine and financial ruin. The headlines scream, “Every … Last … Drop” as we once again argue over who gets what from a limited supply of water.

And I wonder, once again, what about “Every … First … Drop.” In my experience, Oregon does a terrible job of protecting the sources of water. Thousands of feeder streams across the state have no legal protections because they have no resident fish. That they provide the initial water to the larger streams and rivers that do have fish seems not to matter.

The headwaters of each and every source of water in our state should be protected and, if possible, enhanced. Yet downstream gets all the attention, especially when there is a drought. As we try to deal with water that is not there, we should be asking why it’s not there.

Is it the multiple clearcuts that have reduced water storage in the mountainous terrain that surrounds us? Even re-planted, the thin soils, steep terrain and harsh climate of our region mean it will be five to ten and maybe more years before any one hillside, cleared of all vegetation, may once again contribute the full natural measure of water storage. One look out the window when flying out of Medford shows just how many such hillsides surround the valley.

Is it roadbuilding? Mining? Recreation? Over-subscribed or illegal irrigation? Each little cut may seem small on its own, but together they drain the lifeblood of the planet, our precious water. Every drop we protect from erosion, transpiration, mis-use or other human waste is another drop we’ll save so both we and the planet can survive.

Drought comes with cries of conservation, but we should pay more attention to our water resources when they seem abundant. We have abundant water resources in the Northwest, water that served native populations for millennia. New settlers bathed, literally, in the riches of water here. Conservation means not only preserving what we have, but protecting the source(s). In short, we can no longer treat our water resources as the endless supply they appeared 200 years ago.

We can, however, look at the situation that gave us such abundant water 200 years ago. Recent research shows that the best natural conservation enhancement to our water sources came from a rich beaver population. During settlement those beavers were removed, along with all the small pools and ponds they had created that kept the water cool and flowing during the hottest of summers. Then gold was discovered and the banks of virtually every creek in Southern Oregon and northern California were washed away by hydraulic mining that continued until the 1960s.

Let’s bring back the beavers, quit clearcutting these steep hillsides with thin soils, afford stream protection on every water source to the headwaters. Let’s take care of the very first drop so we don’t end up arguing over the very last drop.

Jack Duggan is a Land Steward caring for the headwaters of Forest Creek.