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Getting their feet wet: Intel and other big firms begin to fund Willamette River restoration work

It’s a hot day in late July, and Matt Blakely-Smith is leading a tour of the Greenbelt Land Trust’s latest restoration project at Horseshoe Lake, a 236-acre piece of former farm property that wraps around a bend in the Willamette River between Corvallis and Albany.

The nonprofit environmental group has brought in a local excavating firm to take out two raised farm roads that form a dam across the arms of Horseshoe Lake, a cut-off oxbow that once was part of the Willamette mainstem.

“Those roads were blocking the river from accessing parts of its old floodplain,” said Blakely-Smith, Greenbelt’s restoration coordinator. “Now the water can more easily access the back channels.

The road removal work is just one small piece of the ongoing reclamation efforts at the Horseshoe Lake property, which the land trust has been restoring from farmland to riparian habitat for threatened chinook salmon and other native fish and wildlife species since 2012.

What’s different is the funding source for this project: a grant from Intel Corp.

“They’ve made a commitment to offset all of their water use,” Blakely-Smith said. “It’s kind of like carbon sequestration, only they’ve made a commitment to store water.”

At a time when more traditional sources of funding for environmental restoration in the Willamette Basin are drying up, the influx of corporate money is seen by many conservation groups as a potential lifeline.

“Intel’s been a great partner — they really see the vision,” said Jessica McDonald, the land trust’s associate director.

“What we really hope is that this is opening the door, not just for Greenbelt but also for other organizations working in the Willamette.”

A thirsty business

Intel is one of the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturers, with 107,000 employees and $70.8 billion in net revenues last year. The Silicon Valley powerhouse has a massive presence in Oregon, where it employs more than 20,000 workers.

Semiconductor production is an extremely water-intensive process, and Intel has worked hard to reduce its water consumption, according to Fawn Bergen, Intel’s global sustainability program manager for water stewardship and carbon footprint.

Intel has saved more than 60 billion gallons of water in its worldwide operations over the past 20 years and currently treats and returns 85% of the water it uses to the environment, Bergen said, but the company wanted to reduce its environmental footprint further still.

“Water is really important to us from a business standpoint, but it’s also really important from a community standpoint,” Bergen said.

“We really looked at the broader impact we were having on our watersheds and decided that, as a company, we wanted to do more.”

The result was a commitment, publicly announced in 2017, to restore 100% of the company’s water use by 2025.

To reach that goal, the company has begun funding projects that benefit watersheds in areas where it does business. By the end of last year, Intel had funded 14 projects in six states, including four in Oregon: at Horseshoe Lake, Bowers Rock State Park near Albany, Wapato Lake south of Hillsboro and the Middle Deschutes River near Bend. A fifth Oregon project has recently been funded in the McKenzie River watershed.

The work ranges from improving floodplain connections at Horseshoe Lake and Bowers Rock to replacing infrastructure for water level management at Wapato Lake and leasing water rights to preserve instream flows in the Deschutes.

Using methodologies developed by a company called LimnoTech in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the restoration benefits of each project are calculated based on the estimated amount of water that is saved, protected, treated or returned from pre-project to post-project conditions.

According to Bergen, the Oregon projects are expected to result in the restoration of nearly 470 million gallons of water each year by the time they’re fully developed.

Because Intel’s water use will be ongoing, the projects are designed to provide ongoing environmental benefits as well, Bergen said, and more projects may be added down the road.

“We’re not investing in projects that have a short-term outcome — we’re looking at projects that have a 10-year benefit or more,” she said.

“The target itself is a moving target,” she added. “If (our) water use goes up, the goal will go up; if the use goes down, the goal will go down.”

The company does not disclose the exact dollar figures it provides for individual projects, but Bergen said spending so far has ranged from as little as $40,000 to as much as $400,000.

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