The rivers flowing through the Willamette Valley support and attract a variety of livelihoods and interests, from fish and marine biologists to hay and family fruit and vegetable farms. These waters are the lifeblood of the Willamette Valley community, and although a beauty to be marveled from the surface, the aquatic biology beneath the water is imperative to the health and wellness of the rivers and their surrounding environments. Freshwaters Illustrated, a non-profit organization led by Jeremy Monroe, strives to bring awareness to the beauty and importance of life within the rivers, and to tell stories of the struggle and strife of species often overlooked.
Monroe studied aquatic ecology, specifically fish and river ecology, while attending Colorado State University. Throughout the 10 years since Freshwaters Illustrated was founded, Monroe, along with his cinematographer Dave Herasimtschuk, have traveled around the world working on projects that shine a light upon the efforts of people working to preserve or reconstruct freshwater habitats. The Freshwaters team works in partnership with the Oregon Watershed Council, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, and Colombia River Intertribal Fish Agency. The team’s projects have been funded largely by donations, federal and private grants, and a growth of membership.
Their goal is to tell stories, through inspiring imagery and short films that allow people to better understand and appreciate the rivers.
“We try to create imagery and stories that help people see rivers like the Willamette as living ecosystems, with the hope that people will see something to connect to, and something worth protecting or even restoring,” says Monroe. The crew enters rivers, via snorkeling and free diving, to capture photos of marine life and their interactions with each other and the environment. By having documented photographic progress of work being done to restore rivers, as well as displaying a diverse and intriguing habitat, Jeremy hopes to invite people back into the rivers, while having knowledge and consciousness about the life they support.
Monroe feels lucky to be based in Corvallis, a supportive community with a “virtual subculture of fish biologists and water people” with an overall concern for the health of the rivers and the life they support. “Corvallis is a great place for us to connect to the aquatic scientists and conservation professionals that inspire our work, and we’re always looking for local filmmakers, animators, video editors, actors, and musicians in the Corvallis community to collaborate with,” he says. Citing a “deep aquatic consciousness” the area possesses, he notes the Green Belt Land Trust and Mary’s River Watershed, both of which are Corvallis-based community organizations working with landowners and farmers to complete restoration projects which have successfully improved erosion issues and allowed for healthier spawning habitats.
Although the team has traveled worldwide covering different freshwater stories, there is no shortage of work to be done in their own backyard. Among the projects based in the Pacific Northwest, the ongoing Willamette Futures Project focuses on restoration projects throughout the valley that are working to improve certain conditions associated with the Willamette River and some of its tributaries, efforts which have had a great positive impact on the health of the river.
“We’ve been working for the past three years on a feature film and short film series on the ecological restoration of the Willamette River and its tributaries, a decades-long effort that has pulled the Willamette out of some its worst conditions in the mid-20th century, and aspires to create a Willamette watershed that balances the needs of agriculture and cities with the needs of salmon and other aquatic life,” says Monroe.
That “other life” is a huge attraction to the films. “Most of us know about the impressive salmon and steelhead that migrate up and down the Willamette, but what can shock people are the other creatures that call the Willamette’s waters home: ancient eel-like Pacific lamprey that can climb waterfalls with their suction-mouths, pearlshell mussels that can live for over 60 to 80 years, six- to eight-foot-long white sturgeon that lurk in deep holes, rough-skinned newts that have comical group sex in chilly wetlands, and even the Oregon chub, which is poised to become the first fish to be taken off the Endangered Species List thanks to cooperative recovery efforts.”
Monroe is looking to be wrapping up with the short films by the end of this year, to be followed by many community screenings throughout the valley. He is also pursuing broadcasting with OPB in hopes of reaching a more diverse audience.
“Our hope with the Willamette film is to shine light on an enormous amount of conservation work that’s been going on in farms, neighborhoods, and cities throughout the Willamette Basin over the past few decades,” he says.
To see short videos and a wide array of photographs of the Willamette Futures Project and other projects located in the Northwest, including the Pacific lamprey, Oregon chub, bull trout, and other projects worldwide, visit www.freshwatersillustrated.org.
By Kirsten Allen