By Mike Schut, Program Officer Laird Norton Family Foundation
Language matters; ideas matter—matter so much that they become embodied and show up in the landscape.
Visit with the staff of Clean Water Services (CWS), tour a few of their watershed restoration projects, or simply read closely some of their brochures and case studies, and you’ll see what I mean. As a public utility managing wastewater they serve nearly 600,000 residents in cities and towns immediately west of Portland, Oregon.
Now it’s not unusual for a utility to serve its residents. But, CWS also explicitly state that they “serve” the land within their water district.
Yes, CWS also employs the words “manage” or “management” when describing their work, but their leadership chose to use the word “serve” to describe their interactions and relationship with the land in their care.
What!? Serve the land!?
Humanity (at least those with the power over the last few hundred years) has more often used words like use, control, subdue, even dominate, to describe their relationship with the land. If we even recognized that we had a relationship with the land, it was supposed to serve us!
Serving the land suggests a potentially significant shift, especially because CWS seems to embody that service in the landscape:
Former wastewater treatment ponds at Fernhill have been transformed from rip-rapped ponds into a beautiful natural treatment system filtering water through 90 acres of native wetland plants. The site includes meandering walking paths through a “Water Garden” designed by a world-renowned creator of healing gardens.
CWS’s Durham wastewater treatment facility features a cogeneration system; powered by methane generated by the “digestion” of wastewater along with food grease collected from local restaurants, the system generates 60% of the facility’s energy needs.
In just one year CWS planted over 2 million trees. They annually restore more than 10 miles of riparian area along the Tualatin River and its tributaries. The program, called Tree for All, has brought together over 35 organizational partners.
Space restrictions preclude highlighting more of their projects, but CWS is among 61 public and private utilities internationally recognized in the inaugural Utility of the Future program for pioneering innovation in resource recovery, energy generation, and natural treatment wetlands.
What also struck me as I spent the afternoon with CWS leaders Bruce Roll, Mark Poling, and Rich Hunter is that Clean Water Services seems to understand that doing things right for their community not only means attending to the human community; it also means attending to the needs of the watershed, the creatures, the land.
That seems deeply right. Deep down we all know that our community includes more than our human neighbors, and that our own health is inextricably linked to ecosystem health.