Editor’s note: Never before have we so deeply experienced the effects of a changing planet. This four-part series dives into the effects of climate change on some of Oregon’s destinations, attractions and industries. We also explore the resilience of local communities and the innovations of local leaders determined to keep Oregon one of the greenest places in the world to visit and live.
With a coastline stretching 363 miles and a landscape dotted with countless lakes and rivers, Oregon’s waterways provide plenty of opportunities to play, whether it’s fishing from a dock or crabbing in the bays, kayaking the lakes or floating the rivers. They also harbor complex ecosystems that are home to a bounty of plants and wildlife, but these systems are feeling the environmental effects of climate change and urban growth.
In 2021 the Oregon Coast Visitors Association joined forces with nearly 450 international partners to declare a climate emergency and a goal to cut global carbon emissions to 55% by 2030. The Coast’s tourism agency developed a 10-year Mitigation, Adaptation and Resiliency Plan to create a road map for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and supporting coastal resiliency efforts in the tourism industry. That includes $2 million for new electric vehicle charging stations and infrastructure alone, thanks to partnerships.
“Rising to the occasion and working together requires a little bit of grit and a lot of courage,” says Arica Sears, the association’s deputy director, who has led the charge. “I can’t think of a more creative and lionhearted group than what we have on the Coast, and they will be key to this initiative’s success.”
Here are some other ways that Oregon destinations are working to help preserve Oregon’s water resources, and how you can join them.
Plant a Tree for Healthy Fish Habitats
The Columbia River, which defines much of Oregon’s northern border, is a critical habitat for more than 200 species of birds and more than 60 species of fish. The river and its surrounding wetlands and estuaries provide shelter and food to many animals as they complete their migratory journeys. But as air temperatures rise with climate change, the Columbia’s waters are warming as well.
That’s bad news for migrating fish, says Chris Collins, the restoration program lead at the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, since water temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees C) can be dangerously warm to the ecosystem. In 2015 hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon died in the Columbia when water temperatures rose precipitously and much earlier in the summer than expected. In 2021, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced emergency closures of several steelhead fisheries on the Columbia’s tributaries in light of plummeting numbers of the fish.
There are ways to mitigate the effects of the rising temperatures, says Collins. One option is to provide migrating salmon and trout with pockets of cooler water during their journey. The fish will hang out in those restorative “rest stops” for days or even weeks during their migrations. Smaller rivers and creeks are often reliable sources of cooler water, and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership is currently working to ensure that one of the Columbia’s tributaries, Horsetail Creek, creates a refuge of cooler water where it enters the larger river. Visitors can get involved by joining volunteer events at places like the Sandy River Delta in Troutdale to plant shade trees and restore native habitats near the Columbia. “We always encourage people to come out and help,” Collins says.
Improving Diversity in Waterways
Rising temperatures are also affecting Oregon rivers and lakes by causing proliferations of algae. These algal blooms, nourished by nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen that leach out of soils, can be harmful to humans, pets and marine life. Check water conditions before letting your pet swim, since these blooms can be fatal.
Planting trees and shrubs near waterways can help curb erosion and prevent nutrient-rich soils from entering rivers and lakes. Visitors can make an impact by volunteering at planting events held across the state. Watershed councils — local groups focused on protecting waterways and their environs — regularly host planting events. Check out the council in your area for volunteering opportunities.
Marine environments are also feeling the brunt of warming temperatures. Just off Oregon’s Coast, stands of kelp — a seaweed that provides food and habitat for myriad animals and also functions as a carbon sink — are suffering. “They’re a cold-water-loving species,” says Sarah Gravem, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University. Kelp populations are unfortunately being hit with a double whammy: In addition to being weakened by warmer waters, they’re being gobbled up by voraciously hungry purple sea urchins. “The sea urchins are starting to mow down the kelp forests,” says Gravem.
The Oregon Kelp Alliance, a nonprofit research organization based in Port Orford, is working to protect these trees of the sea by systematically removing sea urchins from several sites. “We’re hoping to create little kelp oases along the coastline,” says Gravem, who is a leading member of the organization. Visitors can lend a hand, especially experienced divers. Reef Check Foundation holds training sessions in Reedsport, where divers with rescue certification and higher can learn to be underwater citizen scientists. “We need divers who can go down and count urchins and kelp,” Gravem says.
Play, Eat and Sip With a Purpose
If you’re a water lover but prefer to be on it rather than in it, South Coast Tours in Port Orford offers a plethora of expert-led options: surfing lessons, whale-watching expeditions, guided kayaking trips and more. And everyone, including die-hard landlubbers, can support coastal ecosystems in a delicious way — by seeking out sustainable seafood that’s local and responsibly harvested.
“Buy fish locally,” says Gravem. “Support your local fisherman.” Buying directly from the person who caught your dinner keeps money in coastal communities, and it supports family-scale organizations, which often choose to prioritize healthy fishing practices such as catching fish on a line rather than trawling the seafloor with giant nets. Other local food and small businesses can be found on the coastal food trails — North Coast, Central Coast and South Coast.
It’s possible to support stewards of local seafood even if your travels don’t take you to the Coast: Seafood-focused meal kits made in Newport by Local Ocean are available for pickup in Astoria, Newport, Portland, Corvallis and Bend; and Port Orford Sustainable Seafood delivers line-caught seafood to many cities in the western part of the state.
Or just have a glass of wine at your favorite winery. More than 300 of Oregon’s vineyards and wineries have adopted practices that minimize negative social and environmental impacts, including a certification that guarantees their operations protect waterways and preserve or improve salmon habitat. One of these certified wineries, Stoller Family Estate every year builds upon a pollinator pathway across its 400-acre vineyard — which will bloom with more than 10,000 flowering plants that attract birds and butterflies — and one of the largest private oak savannas in the Pacific Northwest.
Beer lovers, too, can get in on the action and raise a pint from approximately 30 breweries that are part of the Oregon Brewshed Alliance. This coalition is dedicated to educating Oregonians about clean water and safeguarding watersheds and forests. Water is an integral part of growing grapes and hops, and these makers are continuing to innovate with their practices to reduce their impacts — whether it’s solar-powered wineries, recycled-glass bottles, cans for lighter shipping costs or donating a portion of proceeds to organizations that help local stewardship efforts. Hopworks Urban Brewery’s 20-barrel facility in Portland, for instance, is the first certified Salmon-Safe brewery in the world, using hops from farms that take steps to reduce the impact of agricultural runoff into local water sources that support salmon runs, as well as other initiatives.
Help Keep Beaches Free of Plastic
If you’re craving a walk on the beach after a hearty seafood dinner, your stroll can support healthy coastal ecosystems, too. SOLVE, a Portland-based nonprofit, organizes beach-cleanup events up and down the Coast, and the city of Seaside is now offering tokens that can be redeemed at local coffee shops for visitors who pitch in to clean up the beach at any time — or you can join a Treasure the Beach cleanup held the first Saturday of each month.
Farther south along the Coast, Washed Ashore, a nonprofit organization and art museum in Bandon, relies on volunteers to collect and clean debris from beaches that otherwise would get eaten by or trap fish and marine mammals. The material is then assembled into larger-than-life sculptures depicting marine mammals, birds and similar themes to help raise awareness about consumer waste. Meanwhile, Portland-based outdoor adventure outfitter First Nature Tours offers a regenerative coastal trip that includes two days of beach cleanup work with downtime for naturalist-guided hiking, biking and tide pooling.
Wherever you go in Oregon, you can also reduce your impact by refusing single-use plastics in the form of straws, utensils, water bottles and plastic bags for takeout food and groceries. Bring your own reusables and support businesses that do the same. Find more on the impact of plastic pollution at the Surfrider Foundation, which has several chapters in Oregon.
With so many rewarding ways to preserve Oregon’s waterways, we can all work together to ensure that these resources remain clean, safe and accessible for years to come.