Background, Challenges, & Success
Oregon is an extraordinary place, in terms of social, biological, and geographical diversity, as well as watershed interconnectivity. The Network represents watershed councils operating across the state in regions with distinct politics and ecological biomes. Some work in relatively small geographic areas with dense populations; others serve vast rural geographies with thousands of stream miles. For some, the core stakeholders are suburban homeowners and industrial businesses; for others, they are farmers and cattle ranchers. Rural organizations face unique challenges in fundraising, particularly in areas with significant public land holdings and low population. Council coordinators are quick to point out these differences, and to identify how each of their organizations is unique.
In spite of these very real differences between watershed councils, there is more that binds them. Many struggle with public misperception that they are arms of government. Some maintain a relatively low profile. Many are small organizations with limited resources. All are affected by state policies and funding decisions that are challenging to influence. They face the ongoing challenge of identifying prospective board members and attracting and retaining professional staff with skills in nonprofit administration and watershed restoration. Their work faces increasing competition for funding – more than their core funder, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board alone can provide – and with limited resources there is increasing pressure for organizational effectiveness. The very nature of their model, as diverse coalitions of stakeholders living and working within the watershed of each council, presents a decision-making challenge. In spite of these challenges, or perhaps because of them, watershed councils are, as a general rule, enterprising and impactful organizations.
The Network of Oregon Watershed Councils formed in 2004 in response to a variety of needs in the sector, including building the capacity of watershed councils, improving key relationships between councils, agencies, policy-makers, and funders, and promoting public awareness of watersheds and watershed councils. It has played an important role in advancing the field, with significant programmatic successes since its inception:
- The passage of Measure 76, during which Network staff and board members worked to refine language in the Measure to ensure that watershed council interests were protected, making use of key relationships, demonstrating political savvy, and serving as the watershed councils’ voice to the legislature.
- Regular conferences, now organized annually in partnership with the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, that provides convening, networking, and peer-to-peer learning.
- An Atlas of Accomplishments that highlights past achievements and demonstrates the value of watershed councils
- Capacity building support such as webinars and convenings such as the 2016 Fall Networking Event
- A regular presence with key agencies, funders, and other conservation organizations, as well as engagement with the legislature, which gives councils a collective identity so they remain a relevant and positive participant in statewide dialogue
- Strategic partnerships that enhance the work of councils and help them respond to key changes in funding for council activities