VIP program could benefit landowners
LEABURG: The Eugene Water & Electric Board is sponsoring a process that could result in annual dividend payments to landowners in a stewardship zone of riparian forests and floodplains along the McKenzie River. The proposed Voluntary Incentives Program (VIP) may include private landowners, local governments, and non-profit organizations that own land within the designated boundary. Based on EWEB’s preliminary analysis, an estimated 6,500 acres along the McKenzie and major tributaries would be eligible to enroll.
The VIP process is envisioned as a way to maintain and improve water quality within the McKenzie River Watershed, Eugene’s sole source of drinking water.
In 2010, the UO’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment and Community Service Center, as well as the OSU Institute for Natural Resources, received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to evaluate the potential involvement of utilities in “payment for ecosystem service” programs, according to CSC director Robert Parker. “That study included two surveys: one of landowners with river frontage in the basin, and one of EWEB ratepayers. We anticipate having the draft report on those results available in about a month,” Parker noted.
This Tuesday, February 19th, survey respondents who are basin landowners eligible to participate in a VIP were scheduled to meet in Leaburg to provide input on the structure of the program. Parker said the process will wind down in early summer. “We anticipate having several meetings with a committee that EWEB is in the process of forming, as well as at least one other bigger meeting.”
The new incentive-based approach is in contrast to a proposed 2010 setback ordinance that would have required a 200-foot riparian buffer zone between the river and property development. It generated considerable public opposition and was withdrawn.
EWEB Source Water Protection Coordinator Karl Morgenstern says, “Our program is designed for those homeowners who have healthy riparian forests. We want to reward them with what we’re calling dividend payments on that natural capital in return for their agreeing to protect that area for a long period of time.”
Currently EWEB anticipates setting up a fund with sustainable financing to support payments for all participating landowners. Financing could come from a variety of sources including existing rates, corporations, development impact fees, state and federal mitigation programs, and grants from foundations.
While some programs provide financial assistance or rewards for restoring riparian areas, EWEB could offer a program that pays landowners for the dollar value it recognizes in existing healthy riparian areas. “We just haven’t had those payments for good stewardship,” explains Keli Kuykendall, executive director of Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development.
Craig Burns, of the Dunroamin’ hazelnut and berry farm in Vida, sees potential benefits from a VIP program. The riparian area at Dunroamin’ amounts to about ten percent of the property. That area includes habitat for native plants and animals, and a buffer or filter for agricultural and domestic activities.
Burns explains, “It’s tough to make a living on a small farm nowadays, and so any benefit that we could get, any financial incentive would be a help.” He expects compensation from the VIP would be modest but may help, for example, with taxes on the riparian area.
Other McKenzie River landowners with riparian areas not meeting the program’s criteria also might get some assistance to improve their lands in order to enroll. Several organizations working in the McKenzie Basin offer assistance or rewards for landowners who work to improve the quality of their riparian areas. Once they have completed restoration, EWEB officials hope landowners will enroll in the VIP.
Burns still has reservations, like whether the program would have so many restrictions that his family would choose not to enroll. “I think there should be a very strong science background to the program, and an educational program would be super. I’ve learned through 50 years down here what I think works to manage invasive species. I’m sure there are other people who have good ideas also.”
Burns sees, like EWEB, that among the most valuable resources on the river – after the riparian areas themselves – are landowners and the knowledge they have earned from living there.
VIP Advisory Committee meetings will be held the first Thursday of each month at the Leaburg Fire and Training Center, with the first meeting scheduled for March 7th. Committee members will be expected to attend four to five meetings over the next five months.
For more information, contact: Karl Morgenstern (firstname.lastname@example.org) (541) 685-7365 or Nancy Toth (email@example.com) (541) 685-7438 at EWEB, or Bob Parker at the Community Planning Workshop (541) 346-3801.
McKenzie River Reflections