By Dave Stockdale, Water & Environmental Center Director Walla Walla Community College
Faced with the challenges of managing limited water resources, recovering runs of Endangered Species Act listed fish species, and restoring the watershed after a devastating 1996 flood, key natural resource partners in the Walla Walla Basin united to establish the William A. Grant Water & Environmental Center (WEC) at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) in 2007. Conceived as a nexus for the region’s interests, talent, and resources, and originally consisting of only conference facilities and office spaces, a major expansion in 2011 added research and teaching laboratories, classrooms, and additional office space.
Today the WEC is a facility where education, collaboration and partnership play a key role in addressing issues essential to the sustainability of southeastern Washington’s water-dependent agriculture, salmon runs, and overall economy. The WEC combines research and development that has led to innovative new ideas while also providing hands-on education to train new workers and public outreach to inspire broader stewardship. In support of this vision, the mission of the WEC is “to serve as a place where people with diverse interests and values can learn, share knowledge and work together to create a healthy and sustainable natural environment and thriving local economies.”
The WEC is home to WWCC’s Water Technologies & Management (WTM) Degree Programs, which includes two year degrees in Watershed Management and Irrigation Management, a two year degree in Water Resources Management that leads directly into WWCC’s new Bachelor of Applied Science in Sustainable Agriculture Systems degree, and two year transfer degrees to Washington State University in Wildlife Ecology & Conservation science, Forestry, Environmental & Ecosystem Sciences, and Earth Science.
The WEC offers a number of K-12 programs and teacher resources, including an annual two-day environmental education event for area 5th grade students called Make a Splash! WEC staff also conducts a number of community events, such as the annual Return to the River festival which celebrates the return of salmon to the Walla Walla Basin with educational exhibits and hands-on activities.
Central to the inception and operation of the WEC is also the concept of collaboration. In addition to the WWCC programs and activities, the WEC is also home to five co-located partners: Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Sustainable Living Center, UNIBEST International, Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership, and the Washington State Department of Ecology.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) fisheries staff field office has operated at the WEC since its establishment, and is actively engaged in multiple habitat enhancement projects in the Walla Walla and Tucannon basins and long term monitoring along the Walla Walla River. They also operate a state of the art wetlab where they are studying the biology and ecology of Pacific lamprey and freshwater mussels.The Sustainable Living Center (SLC) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to conserve resources for the future by encouraging and facilitating sustainable living practices. They manage four distinct activities: the Community Energy Efficiency Program, the Builders Resupply Store, the $mart Business Partners Program, and a wide variety of practical Community Workshops addressing sustainability topics.UNIBEST International (UNIBEST) is a private technology development and professional services company that provides farmers, agribusiness, terrestrial environmental managers, and home garden consumers with monitoring products and data. These monitoring systems are founded upon advanced ion-exchange resin technologies that adsorb nutrients only in forms available for plant uptake in the time they are growing. They recently adapted their technology for in stream water quality monitoring.In 2009 the Washington State Legislature approved a ten year pilot local water management program called the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership (WWWMP). The WWWMP is governed by a volunteer board and has been located at the WEC since its authorization. This program operates under the belief that the key to augmenting stream flows for fish is for water users to employ greater local control and flexibility beyond what conventional water management options and regulations can deliver.
Their programs include water banking, well mitigation exchanges, and local water plans.The mission of the Washington State Department of Ecology’s (DOE) Water Resources Program is to meet current water needs and ensure future water availability for people, fish and the natural environment. The Eastern Regional Office, based 150 miles away in Spokane, includes a Walla Walla Basin District Field Office within the WEC for the Watermaster who divides, regulates, and controls the use of water within the district.
In 2014 the WEC commissioned an Economic & Environmental Impact Study to quantify the economic, environmental, and social impacts collectively generated through the WEC collaborative model since its establishment. The impacts of the WEC collaborative model were calculated primarily by using economic modeling tools and applying ecosystems service models to the environmental impacts of co-locator projects.
The total estimated economic contribution of the WEC from 2007-2014 was nearly $89M while the cumulative expenditures during that time were just under $28M. These totals were estimates, and were likely underestimated as they did not include valuations for contributions and services for which there was incomplete data or insufficient modeling systems at that time. In aggregate, the study determined that the WEC and its co-located partners are realizing a $3 return in economic and environmental impacts for every $1 invested. The results of the economic and environmental impact study (the full study can be found at www.watereducationcenter.org) show that the collaborative model of the WEC is generating a significant return on investment.
Thus, the vision of the WEC to be a place where public institutions, nonprofit organizations, and business communities use collaborative dialogue to address pressing issues and build pathways for problem solving through partnerships is not only qualitatively being achieved, but is also a quantitative success.