GARIBALDI - Estuaries are coastal areas where land, rivers and oceans meet. The Tillamook Bay estuary is also an area where the concerns of dairy farmers, fishermen, oyster growers, tourists and loggers are sometimes at odds.

Steve Nelson, Tillamook Bay National Estuary Project director and Oregon State University Extension faculty, just wrapped up four years of research that he hopes will build consensus between these groups.

Nelson said the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) has been completed and is open for public comment through Nov. 15. This marks the formal end of four years of research and will lead into three years of implementation. The 200-page CCMP focuses on fish habitat restoration; reduced erosion and sedimentation; improved water quality and flood mitigation.

"Flood mitigation is the most recent addition because of the problems we have had with floods the past two years," Nelson said. "During the big flood of 1996, the area received 126 inches of rain."

Most of the goals in the plan have standards set for reasonable times periods such as "by 2010, upgrade half of the tide gates," Nelson pointed out. "This week we are putting in three tide gates equipped with fish doors that allow fish to pass through except during high tide."

Another 2010 goal is fish habitat restoration by building buffer zones between pastures and the streams and rivers. Increasing the vegetation along these riparian (stream bank) areas will keep enhance fish habitat, reduce erosion and keep livestock out of the streams, Nelson said.

There are about a dozen of research projects going on at any one time.

Roxanna Hinzman of the OSU Extension Service, the scientific and technical coordinator for the project, juggles these ongoing projects. These includes small challenge grants, demonstration projects and research grants that total about $400,000 annually.

"Right now part of the project involves measuring the effects of some of the riparian buffer strips, part is measuring the bacteria concentrations in the bay," Hinzman said. "We know that some of the bacteria is from dairy operation runoff and some is from residential and urban sources, but we don't know the relative contribution of each source. There are two ongoing projects aimed at answering this question."

One of the demonstration projects funded by the Tillamook Estuary Project is a "constructed wetland"on Dale Buck's dairy farm just south of Tillamook. Jim Moore, OSU Extension bioresource engineer, created a wetland to act as a filter for dairy farm runoff and to create wildlife habitat. The wetland receives the runoff from about 15 acres of dairy pasture.

This is an important step because about 80 percent of the area's naturally occurring wetlands have been lost - about one-third which were diked to create pasture for dairy farms.

The Tillamook Bay National Estuary Project is as much an experiment in political science as it is biological science. The program was recently selected to a "Reinventing Government Lab" - one of Vice President Al Gore's projects under the National Performance Review.

Those involved in the project are committed to making data from the four years of research available to the public.

"The culmination of this is the Tillamook Watershed Resource Center , a six workstation GIS (geographic information systems) lab located at the Tillamook Bay Community College," Nelson said. "All the data, maps and overlays are there, plus there is always someone on staff to help people search the data bases."

Where will the Tillamook Bay Estuary Project be three years from now?

"The project will mature into a performance partnership that integrates all the constituencies into a coordinated restoration effort," Nelson said. "We hope we have left an environmental management framework that the local government can easily use.

"We hope we can leave the community with the best science and best tools possible," Nelson added. "We hope to be able to track the progress of the CCMP and come back in 10 years and see those goals accomplished."

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Steve Nelson 503-322-2222