By Bennett Hall

Corvallis Gazette-Times

It’s a hot day in late July, and Matt Blakely-Smith was 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 had brought in a local excavating firm to take out two raised farm roads that form a dam across the arms of Horseshoe Lake, a cutoff oxbow that once was part of the Willamette River.

“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 was 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.

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

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.

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.

“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.

Getting into the game

Intel isn’t the only big corporation starting to bankroll environmental work in Oregon.

According to Todd Reeve, executive director of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, there are three or four companies committing “significant amounts of money” to restoration efforts around the state, most notably Intel and Coca-Cola. He added that another company, which he declined to name, is considering a $1 million investment in Oregon environmental projects.

That money is seen as especially welcome by nonprofit organizations working in the Willamette Basin, where a concerted effort has been underway since 2008 to restore floodplain connections and riparian habitat along the main-stem river and its tributaries.

The three major funders of that work — the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Bonneville Power Administration — have collectively pumped more than $80 million into the undertaking so far.

But Meyer is winding down its involvement with the Willamette as it shifts its focus to other needs, and it’s unclear how much longer OWEB and BPA will continue to be reliable sources of financial support.

Reeve, whose organization has been heavily involved in the push for environmental restoration in the Willamette Basin and acts as a matchmaker between projects and funders, believes corporate funding will continue to grow in importance — but may never be enough to keep pace with the need.

In part, that’s because relatively few Fortune 500 companies have significant ties to Oregon. Another factor is that Oregon — at least in the heavily populated western part of the state — has a relatively stable water supply.

Making a splash

Intel’s Bergen believes her company will likely remain a strong funding partner for water restoration work in Oregon and elsewhere.

She also perceives growing interest from other big companies in launching similar efforts.

“I see momentum from the tech industry — a number of companies have reached out and want to know what we’re doing,” Bergen said. “I think it’s earlier days in Oregon, but I think it’s coming.”

As far as environmental organizations working to restore the Willamette River are concerned, the more funding sources, the merrier.

“The corporate partnerships are super-important regardless, but especially as funding becomes more competitive,” Greenbelt’s McDonald said.

“It’s great to bring more funders to the table as other funding sources become more competitive or start drying up.”

Collin McCandless, executive director of the Calapooia Watershed Council, seconded that opinion.

He said Intel’s financial contribution made a huge difference in his organization’s ability to push the Bowers Rock project forward, and he’s looking forward to working with other companies in the future.

“Seeing these large corporations coming in and taking the initiative is awesome,” McCandless said. “It’s a game-changer, and I really hope they continue to do that.”