The Willamette River has long sustained communities in the Pacific Northwest. Since time immemorial, Kalapuyan tribes have centered their livelihoods on its waters for fishing and on its fertile valley for agriculture.

But over the course of the past two centuries, this life-giving water has been exploited by colonization, polluted by industrial runoff, and encroached on by urbanization. Resident fish contain such high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, a human-made chemical found in electrical equipment, that they are toxic to eat. Then there are the 13 federally owned dams, as well as private dams, that have impeded the river’s natural flow and fish’s migratory patterns.

Undoing this damage and repairing the health of the Willamette River has been an uphill battle, with individual organizations each trying to tackle different parts of the problem. This has been made even more challenging by the short-term funding for environmental work, which deters large-scale and long-term projects.

In 2008, Meyer Memorial Trust launched the Willamette River Initiative (WRI), in partnership with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, to coordinate the efforts of disparate groups, build upon existing scientific research, and scale up ecological restoration across the river basin.

Over the course of 11 years, the partner organizations doled out more than $80 million, which grantees used to plant more than 3,900 acres of floodplain and riparian forest, reconnect 15.5 miles of side channels to the floodplain, remove or improve 23 barriers to fish passage, restore 18 miles of in-stream habitat, and enhance or treat 46 acres of wetlands.

According to the initiative’s partners and grant recipients, the unique success of the WRI is the collaboration it fostered across racial, ideological, and rural-urban divides, and the fruitful, ongoing relationships it created. Together these new networks are building people power to restore the Willamette River and communities’ relationships with it.

Read the full article about the Willamette River at Grist.