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Perspectives on New Watershed Program – An Interview with Karl Morgenstern

Karl MorgensternA big focus of Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters Project is on how federal funding can be re-directed to protect and restore the key watersheds in the West that provide clean water to cities downstream.

We saw a prime opportunity when the U.S. Forest Service rolled out the first stage of its ambitious new Watershed Condition Framework (WCF) program, which the agency will use to identify watersheds that will be given highest priority in allocating funds for on-the-ground restoration work. Since that rollout, the Healthy Headwaters Working Group has been working with lead staff in the Chief’s office to map out how Carpe Diem West’s strong and unconventional alliance of water utilities, conservationists, scientists, and community leaders can engage with all levels of the Forest Service to help shape WCF program priorities.

We spoke with Karl Morgenstern, the Drinking Water Source Protection Coordinator for the Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB), about the potential he sees from the perspective of a municipal water utility.


As a public utility manager, why are you interested in the Forest Service’s new Watershed Condition Framework?

It really boils down to how we work with the Forest Service to determine what activities will take place on the ground in our municipal supply watersheds. In the case of our local Forests – the Willamette and Deschutes – we really like the direction they are going. The Watershed Condition Framework is another step toward helping the Forest Service understand the differences between individual watersheds, and how to set priorities for restoration work. What we’d like to see the Forest Service do is overlay the municipal source watersheds on top of the Watershed Condition Framework maps, and use that to help us focus on getting some things done in the areas that really need it.

How would you like to see EWEB and other water utilities engage with the Forest Service in setting priorities under the WCF program?

We recognize that the Forest Service is just getting into this, and that in the early stages the main focus will be on existing priorities rather than having a lot of discussion about new ones. And we can work with that. But over the longer term, it’s important for utilities – not just EWEB, but cities like Salem and Springfield as well – to work as a team to help the Forest Service understand our perspectives, and where we can help them. One example is private lands, which are a big part of the picture in our watersheds, and one that the Forest Service doesn’t always focus on. We can use our experience with private landowners to help fill in the entire picture – to think about timber harvest from the perspective of the entire watershed, not just the publicly-owned parts. In some cases, that may mean increased harvest on Forest Service lands, where practices tend to be more controlled, in exchange for decreased harvest on private lands. This approach could not only improve overall water quality, but also help the Forest Service get past some of the timber wars it’s dealing with right now.

As a member of Carpe Diem West’s Healthy Headwaters Working Group, what role can this broad alliance play?

I think Carpe Diem West is the best thing to happen to us in the West in a long time. For those of us who are part of the Working Group, I think our focus should be to concentrate on our immediate areas – Denver, Eugene, Salt Lake City, etc. – and figure out how the program best applies at our respective local levels, because we know the situation will be different everywhere. In Denver and many other places, the focus will be on wildfire danger. In Salt Lake, it tends to be on development and recreation. Here around Eugene, concerns have come from certain timber harvest practices. But at the same time, we should stay in touch with each other, and be thinking about the common threads that tie all these local experiences together. That way, over time we can learn how this new approach plays out across the West.

Karl Morgenstern is the Drinking Water Source Protection Coordinator for the Eugene Water & Electric Board, where he has developed a number of innovative programs designed to protect the city of Eugene’s source of drinking water, the Mckenzie River. These include a septic system pump-out program, a comprehensive emergency spill response program, a hazardous materials “roundup” and several programs to encourage farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and herbicides in the Mackenzie watershed. Prior to joining EWEB, Karl worked 10 years for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

7/28/11

Photo – Gary Gilardi / Shutterstock.com

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