Slowing effects of climate change among priorities for Oregon’s new watersheds director

Lisa Charpilloz-Hanson will oversee more than $170 million to pay for projects enhancing state waterways and protecting critical species.

By: - December 29, 2021 9:00 am

The Klamath River Watershed extends throughout south central Oregon to northern California and to the Pacific Ocean. It is one of many watersheds in Oregon that Lisa Charpilloz-Hanson will work to protect as new director of the state’s Watershed Enhancement Board.

Lisa Charpilloz-Hanson learns best out in the field, which is how the new director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board found herself, first month on the job, standing over a bridge in Tillamook watching salmon and steelhead swim upstream. In her new role, Charpilloz-Hanson now has a hand in how to spend $170 million each year for projects that improve fish and wildlife habitat across Oregon’s waterways. The money, issued in grants, comes from state lottery profits, the sale of salmon license plates and federal funding.

One of the board’s grants paid for the Tillamook bridge, which replaced a culvert that had blocked the fish from traveling freely. Charpilloz-Hanson wanted to see for herself what the dollars had made possible.

“Every time I see a project, and I am around the people that are doing the work, I can’t help but get excited,” She said.

Lisa Charpilloz-Hanson. (Oregon Governor’s office)

Charpilloz-Hanson took the new job in November and leads a board of 18 drawn from state and federal natural resources agencies, tribes, conservation organizations and the public. They meet four times a year to decide on which watershed conservation and restoration projects to fund and to establish a long-term strategy for the health of Oregon’s rivers and streams. 

Charpilloz-Hanson comes to the governor-appointed role after 20 years with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and years spent in food processing. In each of her roles, Charpilloz-Hanson relied on field trips. 

In those early years, when she worked as a sales representative for Green Giant, the frozen and canned vegetable company, Charpilloz-Hanson went out to asparagus farms around eastern Washington to meet farmers, learn about their pesticide use, inspect their crops and enforce standards. The company sent her to live in Montgomery, Minnesota, for a summer, a town of about 3,000, to work on the corn harvest and help in the processing plant. 

She welcomed the opportunity to understand, firsthand, every part of the system from start to finish.

“I wanted to get that experience and to diversify my background,” she said. 

Rural roots

Charpilloz-Hanson grew up on a farm in the rural, unincorporated community of Monitor, between Woodburn and Mt. Angel. The farm wasn’t her parents’ primary source of income – they both worked other jobs – but the family grew a variety of crops and it inspired her to study agriculture and economics at Oregon State University. 

After graduating in 1989, she took the job with Green Giant and worked with the Washington AgForestry Leadership Program to help farmers and foresters develop knowledge and skills in public policy, and to teach about how such policies impact society, the environment and natural resources. 

“I think that’s really one of the places where my interest was piqued in terms of public service,” she said. It made her want to “work on public policies that really impacted the larger picture related to people and natural resources and the intersection of them.”

She returned to Oregon to work at the state Agriculture Department, managing the department’s commodities commission program, which oversees 22 groups of producers, farmers and public representatives who make fiduciary decisions about everything from commercial fish to grain.

In issuing an award for her service at the Agriculture Department, her bosses wrote that Charpilloz-Hanson worked at “almost every level of the department.” She eventually ascended to the director’s office, where she worked as deputy director for 16 years.

Charpilloz-Hanson had applied for the job of director in 2016 but Gov. Kate Brown ultimately appointed Alexis Taylor, who formerly led the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farming and trade program in developing countries. 

Charpilloz-Hanson continued to serve as deputy director under Taylor.

She said there were a handful of agencies she had always kept in mind as others she would want to work for. 

She told herself, “If the opportunity to lead them were to come to fruition, I wanted to throw my hat in the ring.” 

One of them was the Watershed Enhancement Board. She applied, and waited. Charpilloz-Hanson was confirmed by the Senate in November for a four-year term.

Leadership on controversial issues

In announcing Charpilloz-Hanson as her nominee, Brown said Charpilloz-Hanson was chosen for “her leadership in controversial natural resources issues and regulation.”

She’s overseen regulation and enforcement of farm fertilizers, pesticides and confined animal feeding operations. She created a compliance program for agricultural water quality in the state, controversial because it was voluntary and because it was overseen by the Agriculture Department, not the Department of Environmental Quality. She spent 14 years as the legislative liaison between the Department of Agriculture and state politicians, working on natural resources policy issues, including many that affected agricultural water quality and quantity issues in the Klamath Basin.

“Working in the natural resources arena is really complicated,” she said. “It seems like if you solve one problem, it has an impact on something else. So there’s always this like, push pull thing going on and so, you know, being creative and identifying workable solutions can be incredibly challenging.” 

Barbara Boyer, a hay farmer from McMinnville, is co-chair of the Water Enhancement Board. She said being able to identify workable solutions across a broad set of interests will be one of the big challenges Charpilloz-Hanson takes on in her new role.

“She’ll be focusing on learning the business of all the partners of OWEB,” Boyer said about the various watershed councils, state agencies and nonprofits vying for money from the board. “She has a lot to learn, and she’s capable of it.” 

Boyer has known Charpilloz-Hanson for about 15 years, working across various committees and boards, including about 10 years on the state Board of Agriculture, which advises the Department of Agriculture on policy issues.

“These restoration projects are huge,” Boyer said of what the Watershed Enhancement Board takes on, “and I see her get so excited.” 

Prioritizing projects to combat climate change

Among the projects Charpilloz-Hanson and the board want to take on in the year ahead, she said mitigating the effects of climate change is a priority. 

“Thinking about ag and working lands, that includes forestry as well, and how they play a role in adaptation and mitigation for climate change, and where we can put investments that will get the most bang for the buck in those areas,” she said. 

She wants to put money behind the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, which encourages farmers to arrange easements on their lands that allow continued farming but no other development. Getting such easements often requires payments or tax incentives, and so far the four-year old program has not received any funding.

Jan Lee is executive director at the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, where she represents 45 local soil and water conservation districts. She worked with Charpilloz-Hanson at the Agriculture Department on water quality issues, and said she was excited she’d taken on the role. The two will be working closely, as Lee’s organization vies for grants from the Watershed Enhancement Board.

“We want a carbon sequestration program. That’s important to us,” Lee said. 

She wants the board to create grants to help watershed councils afford technical staff who can help farmers and foresters implement and track projects on their lands that sequester carbon. 

“Right now there are none,” she said. 

Vanessa Green is executive director of the Network of Oregon Watershed Councils. She represents 59 watershed councils across the state, which are made of volunteers who assess their local community watershed conditions and create projects and plans to protect and restore them.

She will also be vying for those grants, and said when she and Lee got the news that Charpilloz-Hanson had been nominated, “Jan was like ‘we won.’”

Lee and Green want the board to focus on efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

“Number one – watershed councils are interested in climate change,” Green said.

“We want to work together to conserve water and plan for wildfires, plant drought-resistant native plants, and plan for temperature reduction in riparian habitats when we put together restoration projects,” said Green. 

Charpilloz-Hanson also wants to focus on keeping agricultural runoff out of water and ensuring watersheds are part of efforts to maintain clean drinking water for communities. 

“I think about water quality generally, and clean drinking water for people, as well as what we can do to prevent pollution from ag and working lands and how OWEB money gets put on the ground,” she said.

Charpilloz-Hanson herself is still a farmer, and she and her family raise sheep not far from where she grew up in Monitor.

“There’s really three things that I’ve done for the last 20-plus years,” She said. “My family, my career and the farm.”

Charpilloz-Hanson is about two-and-a-half months in on the job so far. She’s got one board meeting done, and has taken several field trips to visit with soil and water conservation districts and watershed councils.

“I feel really fortunate,” she said of her new role. “I feel like I hit the lottery.” 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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