January 12th, 2023
I’m writing to let you know that the time has come, after almost twenty years, for me to step down as the Executive Director of WaterWatch of Oregon. I’m not going far, for now. I’ll be continuing in a part time status as a Senior Fundraiser and Advisor (so I expect to be fishing with some of you and please don’t block my fundraising phone calls!) But the years and the genes can only be kept at bay for so long. Alas, like Cervantes in the Prologue to Don Quixote, I have been unable to transgress the order of nature, by which like gives birth to like.
Rest assured, WaterWatch is in really good shape. Development Director Neil Brandt will be the new Executive Director, giving WaterWatch a mostly seamless transition and a lot of horsepower, existing knowledge and energy for new adventures in water advocacy. Our financials are solid. Our mission is solid. Our people are solid. We are in the process of hiring a new staff attorney to expand our capacity to advocate for our unique mission: to protect and restore streamflows in Oregon’s rivers for the fish, wildlife and people who depend on healthy rivers. The indicators for our future are flashing positive.
It’s been an amazing ride so far, these last two decades. Keeping with the literary theme, I’m reminded of a passage from Conrad’s Lord Jim that William Finnegan quotes in Barbarian Days: “We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account.” And an account will be rendered. When I look back on these two decades, I’m proud of that accounting – several million dollars raised to protect and restore Oregon’s rivers, successfully completing many of Oregon’s most ecologically significant dam removals to date, the lower four Klamath River dams coming down soon, undefeated in the Oregon appellate courts for two decades (you read that right), excellent offense and defense for rivers, balanced water policies and investments in the Oregon Legislature, hundreds of new instream water rights to add climate resiliency to streams and rivers, long needed groundwater management reforms finally moving forward and growth of the movement to protect and restore rivers and to secure greater equity, justice and climate resilience in the allocation and management of water in Oregon. Internally, WaterWatch also grew and matured as an organization. To say nothing of twenty annual auctions – count ‘em, twenty! Twenty!!
Of course, I am personally responsible for almost none of this. My role has been, largely, to get others excited in our mission and to facilitate and support others in their efforts to effect change and secure reforms. I also tried, along the way, to educate about the wrongheaded realities of water in the West. But while the role of executive director includes leadership and strategic vision, those qualities can’t be divorced from the basics that keep the ship afloat. I’m reminded what one of my predecessors, Jeff Curtis, once said when asked what he considered his most significant accomplishment as WaterWatch Executive Director: “I got health insurance for the staff.” Amen to that.
No doubt many mistakes were made. I hope they are forgiven or forgotten or didn’t bite us too hard. But, we also overcame many, many challenges. Those that come to mind include COVID, the Great Recession, various market meltdowns, threats (most of the “I’d shoot you but I don’t want to waste a bullet” variety), falsehoods (being called a terrorist and lots of other names), a vandalized office in an often threatening part of town and some big wrongheaded proposals by others to compromise at unacceptable costs. I think it’s fair to say that in every matter we pursued, we were the underdog – in terms of capacity, in terms of resources to deploy and in terms of myths and legends inherent in the popular understanding of the West and its water that had to be overcome. The playing field is not level in this type of work. We were not deterred. Other challenges remain: The ongoing threats to democracy and elections; the structural racism inherent in western water law; the nation’s relationships with dams and cows; the impacts of carbon emissions on the environment, water and all of us. WaterWatch intends to do its part to address some of these challenges.
There are so many people to thank for two decades of counsel and support – the debt is deep and wide. I cannot do justice here to all of you over the years who helped me and gave me a paddle when mine was floating in the rapids around the bend somewhere – or who provided funding for this unduplicated work. I do want to thank my family and particularly my spouse Krista for making it possible on so many levels for me to pursue and sometimes succeed in this dream position at WaterWatch. And Will and Annie for bringing great joy into my life. I’ve been very lucky so far.
It has been a true privilege to serve as the Executive Director of WaterWatch, one of the most important and effective NGOs in the West today. Please join me in supporting WaterWatch’s new Executive Director, Neil Brandt, our soon to be hired new staff attorney and this organization that is so essential for Oregon’s waters.
PS: If you’d like to talk or have any questions about this transition, please reach out. We’d be happy to discuss this transition with you, and to answer any other questions you have about WaterWatch and our work. You can reach Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org and John at email@example.com, or call either of us at the office at 503-295-4039.