Salmon Release Day
“I hope that this river eventually can get back to near perfect – all the wildlife and habitat that may not be perfect now can be back so we can see what it’s like to have a really nice ecosystem in the watershed.” – Orren Carter, Lowell High School Junior
On a sunny winter day, third graders and their high school mentors from Lowell School District took over Elijah Bristow State Park just east of Springfield, Ore., to release their classroom salmon fry into the Middle Fork of the Willamette River.
Clean rivers. Cold water. Shelter and habitat. These are the things they learned salmon need in their classroom, and now they are connecting those lessons back to the river that shapes their community.
These students are part of the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council’s youth education program, which aims to connect students to our rivers so that they can grow up to be the next generation of stewards, leaders and innovators who will turn the tide on the health of Oregon’s watersheds.
We’ve come a long way since the days when the Willamette and other rivers were dumping grounds for raw sewage and industrial waste, but warming water temperatures, polluted runoff and drought are putting our rivers at risk again. Nearly 22,000 stream miles and more than 30 lakes and reservoirs in Oregon are considered “impaired” under the Clean Water Act.
Watershed councils, land trusts, tribes, businesses, and landowners across the state are doing great work to improve watersheds, restore rivers, and keep pollution out of your drinking water and favorite swimming holes. However, preserving the pristine rivers Oregonians depend on to fuel our economy, protect our health and provide habitat for endangered wildlife is a bigger problem than any one group can tackle alone.
Lucky for us, young people across the state are stepping up to the plate through community-led education initiatives, youth watershed councils, and direct service for Oregon’s rivers and fisheries.
Here’s a glimpse of some of the incredible work communities and youth leaders are doing to move us toward healthy river systems in Oregon:
Students in the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council’s Watershed Stewards program contributed more than 900 service-learning hours to improving the river that connects their communities last school year. From Springfield to Oakridge, this program engaged 453 students at public and alternative schools directly in hands-on watershed ecology, habitat restoration, removal of invasive species, planting native trees and shrubs, and fish relocation. Students from this program have gone on to become summer fisheries interns and volunteer leaders on major floodplain restoration projects, working directly with USFS rangers.
On Oregon’s southern coast, where commercial fishing traditions run strong, students are learning about the needs of salmon and our rivers through ODFW’s Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program. Fifth and sixth graders from Coos Bay and North Bend help with collecting, spawning and fin clipping Chinook salmon and steelhead at local hatcheries, while science classes at Coquille High School raise and release 20,000 fall Chinook salmon each year from their on-site, school-operated hatchery program. Standing in a hatchery raceway netting fish, students learn to stretch their comfort zones and build a connection to the importance of salmon and what salmon need to survive in Oregon.
High school students in the Albany area are leading the charge to design, implement and recruit community members to participate in local stewardship projects. The Calapooia Watershed Council engages more than 1,300 students annually in watershed management as early as elementary school with field trips and outdoor learning labs. And by the time they join their high school youth watershed councils, students are taking on community leadership roles, monitoring water quality, restoring riparian areas, and coordinating outreach events.
Every year, about 340 fourth and fifth graders from Central Oregon get a firsthand look at the spawning and habitat of kokanee salmon at the annual Kokanee Karnival. This partnership between local angler groups, ODFW, Deschutes National Forest, and USFWS engages youth in developing an appreciation for clean water, healthy watersheds, fish conservation, responsible angling and community stewardship. While kids discover the tradition of angling, they also learn about fish dissection, the salmon life cycle, and get a hands-on look at healthy habitats in Central Oregon’s iconic fly-fishing streams.
These programs don’t exist without your support. Whether in your backyard, your community or at the Capitol in Salem, every Oregonian has a role to play in preserving our precious water resources for future generations.
We are all part of Oregon’s water future. How will you shape it?