Faced with the challenges of better managing limited water resources, recovering runs for Endangered Species Act listed fish species, and restoring the watershed after a devastating 1996 flood, organizations in the Walla Walla Valley came together to create the William A. Grant Water & Environmental Center at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) as a nexus for the region’s interests, talent, and resources dedicated to water management, education, and research.

By the early 2000’s, many Walla Walla regional entities, including WWCC, were actively engaged in watershed restoration, watershed management efforts, and educational programming. Their accomplishments drew the attention of state and federal agencies who were interested in duplicating these local efforts in other regions of the state. Yet, there was no central place in the region where everyone could gather together to share information and build upon ongoing efforts. WWCC seemed like an ideal setting to create such a collaborative place, and this effort was championed by the Walla Walla Watershed Alliance and the College. The concept of this gathering place matured from an idea in December, 2004, to a state-funded project (backed by State Representative William A. Grant) in May, 2005.

The Water & Environmental Center (WEC) was conceived as a facility where education, collaboration, and partnership would play a key role in addressing issues essential to the sustainability of eastern Washington’s water-dependent agriculture, salmon runs, and overall economy. By combining research and development that leads to innovative new ideas, while also providing hands-on education and training for new workers, the Center was envisioned as a place to both generate environmental solutions and spur economic growth that results in family-wage jobs.

Opened in 2007, the initial 10,758 ft2 facility included offices and meeting rooms, which created common ground through education and collaboration among a range of partners and interests. It earned LEED Silver Certification for its use of green building practices. In its first year, the Center hosted more than 200 meetings, events, and conferences on water, sustainability, and environmental issues. Today, Center staff and our partners continue to produce an impressive array of public programs and events each year.

Yet, even as the originally designed building was being constructed, there were requests from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) for additional space, as they recognized that maintaining local laboratory facilities available for collaborative research would enhance the Tribal Fisheries Research Program’s ability to develop projects, secure grants, educate youth, and expand tribal members’ career opportunities. Thus, a new 15,998 ft2 wing was added in 2011 that includes an aquatic research and propagation laboratory, specimen/biology laboratory, water quality laboratory, hydrology laboratory, classrooms, and additional office space. This addition earned LEED gold certification.

The Water Technologies & Management programs at Walla Walla Community College offer certificates and a two-year degree in Irrigation Management and four transfer degrees to WSU in Natural Resources.

The Center also provides community and K-12 education opportunities, including free community workshops and events in collaboration with its many partners, and K-12 and family hands-on learning experiences in environmental education at annual events such as Make a Splash and Return to the River.

Currently, in addition to WWCC staff and faculty, three co-locators occupy offices and/or laboratories within the Center: the CTUIR Department of Natural Resources, the Sustainable Living Center, and the Washington State Department of Ecology. These co-locators successfully embody the spirit and intent of the Center and its founders through their collaborative projects with the College, each other, and other regional entities.

The Walla Walla Valley, known for its world-class wine, wheat, alfalfa, and those eponymous sweet onions, needs to focus on more efficient water-use practices and environmental sensitivity, especially as vineyards and the production of other value-added crops expand. The Center’s pioneering efforts to educate, collaborate, and ensure wise water management practices will help sustain a bountiful future for the Walla Walla Valley. In recognition of its contributions, the Center was awarded the 2010 Governor’s Workforce and Economic Development Best Practice Award and the 2011 Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Leadership Award. It was also cited as one of the factors for which the National Journal named WWCC one of the top 50 innovators in the U.S. and one of four finalists in the Regional Economic Strategies category in 2013. In addition, the Center was cited as one of the innovations for which WWCC was awarded the prestigious 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.