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Watershed director eases into job despite COVID

 

January 13, 2021

SHANNON RICHARDSON dissects a steelhead during a library kids program.

It can be tough to start a new job in the midst of a pandemic – just trying to get the training you need while working from home is a big challenge.

But when your team project is a stretch of creek in east Linn County, it gets a little easier to meet in person despite the pandemic.

For Shannon Richardson, the new executive director of the South Santiam Watershed Council, COVID has presented a challenge for her new role, but also an opportunity to ease into things.

"It's given me a little bit of space and time to kind of get up to speed, but the downsides of starting during COVID are that I don't have the benefit of in-person Interactions," she told a reporter over Zoom.

Richardson has an easy smile and a talent for explaining complex biological and ecosystem functions in a way that even young children can understand. She's most excited about when the COVID restrictions end because she'll be able to engage in more outreach with youth.

She has an easy manner when it comes to teaching a rowdy group of children – her efforts at the Sweet Home Library's recent after-school program proved it. Even masked and socially distanced, her charisma drew the interest of children ages 6 to 16 as she dissected a steelhead in front of them.

"I'm looking forward to when I can be a little bit more spontaneous in my interactions, where you can stop by the donut shop and wind up talking to the landowner and set up a site visit for the next week or something you know, I really miss that."

Richardson has a lot of experience with Oregon rivers after spending more than 11 years working for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a fisheries biologist, where her projects ranged from salmon and trout enhancement to working with coastal fall chinook.

She received her bachelor's in fisheries and wildlife sciences at Oregon State University, then a master's in public administration from Portland State.

She decided to leave her position with the state to work more directly with the community, she said.

Now, as the leader of SSWC, she can operate outside the structures of government to improve the quality of the watershed, both in terms of habitat and quality of drinking water.

"The South Santiam provides drinking water for downstream communities, and so every action that we take upriver in the basin provides benefit for fish, wildlife and people downstream," she said.

Richardson started at SSWC in August, and said she's making the most of the COVID situation.

"What's really nice is that a lot of our partners are adjusting the ways that they do business. And so it really creates a lot of opportunity to co-create and co-imagine how we work together," she said. "So sometimes, it's not just me coming in and being the new person and being like, what are we doing, why are we doing it that way."

Still, she's disappointed that she hasn't yet met all her colleagues and partners in person, she said. The team has been getting creative for some staff meetings, though.

"We wound up picking a sunny day, and we got together at a local park and we had thermoses of coffee and baked goods that we brought, and we had our hats and our gloves and our puffy jackets and our camp chairs. And we spaced ourselves out 6 feet apart, and we found a way to meet and connect in that way."

Other times, the team heads to a project property in person to discuss what's needed, rather than having the meeting in a board room.

Richardson's eyes shine whenever she talks about the river and the kinds of projects that improve the watershed.

Her organization does a lot beyond outreach: it also works directly with private and governmental landowners to prevent erosion and improve the stream habitat. That includes consulting, finding sources of financial support, and managing relationships between landowners and the government.

The Watershed District also helps with planning treatments on those lands and works with contractors locally to plant the necessary trees, brush, and placing woody debris in creeks to create more habitat.

"The thinking, historically, was that these trees were in the way," she said of woody debris in the river. "As we've learned a little bit more, we've learned about the really vital role that streamside vegetation plays."

Plants growing by a creek or stream drop vegetation like leaves and pine needles into the water, which feed the insects, she said.

"And then fish eat the aquatic insects, and then big fish eat little fish. And so that's that nutrient cycle, that food web that starts with having intact vegetation."

Mature vegetation also falls into the water, which creates "complex habitat," she said. "You have different features like pools and riffles and little cascades, it'll hold up bigger boulders and it'll hold up smaller gravel. And smaller gravel is essential for fish that lay eggs in fresh water, they need that gravel to spawn successfully."

CHILDREN WATCH during a Sweet Home Library after-school program at the Community Center as Shannon Richardson discusses the steelhead she is dissecting.

Richardson flows into these mini-lessons with ease, and seems just as keen to talk about the bene-fits to landowners, like farmers who might lose their land to erosion.

"If a landowner is interested in doing a project that's going to result in uplift for land and water in the South Santiam Basin, we want to be their first call."

SSWC has also worked with youth to plant along trails and streams, throw fish carcasses in the water for "nutrient enrichment," and teach Sweet Home and Lebanon students through outdoor school. While a lot of those outreach activities are on hold because of the pandemic, Richardson said she's looking forward to starting them up again.

"I thrive on wearing a lot of hats, and this is a job where you get to wear all the hats sometimes at once," she said with a laugh. "It's just been fantastic and I'm so excited for a time that I can really get out and meet people more freely in the community and in the basin."

 
 

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