Hands Across The Watershed

Oct 1, 2013

They’re almost unfathomable, those images from a not-so-distant past: Streams thick with flashing bodies. Wagons overflowing with fish. Canneries on every major river. The salmon may be the iconic symbol of the Pacific Northwest, but in less than 150 years, the breathtaking bounty of its numbers has dwindled to wan runs supplemented by hatchery stock. In particular, several runs of Coho are in trouble, including the federally Threatened Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast population.

In April of 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) collaborated with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) to draft a Biological Opinion (BiOp) on the continued operation and maintenance of the Rogue River Basin Project—the complex of reservoirs, irrigation districts and canals that manages the region’s irrigation supply. The document states this project will adversely affect Coho salmon and its habitat, and directs the USBR to take actions to mitigate those effects.

That’s the official language; in layman’s terms, it means Coho are about to catch a much-needed break. The multi-pronged strategy includes ensuring minimum stream flows throughout the Basin, and improving both instream and streamside habitat. The USBR has until 2020 to complete these tasks—a lightning-quick time frame for a government agency. The USBR has laid the groundwork and will begin many projects next year. But it’s not working alone. With the help of local irrigation districts, watershed councils, municipalities, and non-profits, the Bureau’s efforts should not only benefit Coho and other migratory fish, but enhance the region’s economy, health and beauty.

In the 1800s an estimated 100,000 Coho salmon filled the Rogue River. Most of us are all too familiar with the list of infractions: Overharvesting. Dams. Development. Erosion exacerbated by road-building and timber harvesting. The stripping away of streamside vegetation. Though these factors impact our other native salmonids as well, the Coho’s life history makes it especially vulnerable. Chinook, for instance, tend to spawn in the mainstem of the Rogue or large tributaries. The smaller Coho spawn higher in the watershed, usually in late fall. After the eggs hatch in spring, the fry stay in freshwater for a full year before heading for the ocean, seeking refuge in small creeks in the upper reaches of the watershed.

When planning its strategy, the USBR determined the major factor limiting the Coho’s success wasn’t the lack of good spawning habitat, but a dearth of high-quality “juvenile rearing habitat”—cool, deep pools in the summer, and quiescent waters buffered from swift winter flows.

“If [young Coho] don’t have adequate cover, they’ll just continue moving downstream, where they eventually might get washed out or eaten,” says Wendell “Scott” Willey, USBR fisheries biologist.

The bulk of the habitat improvement projects focus on Little Butte Creek and the upper reaches of Bear Creek and its tributaries.

“Little Butte Creek is a very good Coho-rearing stream, and the place that’s seen the highest numbers [historically],” says Willey. Bear Creek was targeted for its potential.

Placing large woody debris in streams—LWD, in restoration parlance—is a proven strategy for creating high-quality habitat. Large logs “mix it up,” creating channel roughness, areas of slow water and places for insects to land on and breed. Wood also traps gravel, which makes for good spawning habitat.

Not just any wood will do. Large conifer logs with intact “root wads” are ideal. These complex structures provide “hidey-holes” for juvenile fish and scour pools out of creek bottoms. Placement also matters, from alignment with a stream—parallel, perpendicular, or somewhere in between—to the angle of repose. Sometimes two or more logs are placed together.

“It’s a science that’s really developed in the last twenty years or so,” says Willey, who admits to some “sticker shock” upon learning how much these projects can cost. Willey has walked Bear Creek from the airport to Ashland Creek to identify appropriate places with good access (i.e. landowner consent). The USBR is also collaborating with the Little Butte Creek Watershed Council (LBCWC) on a multi-faceted project on the south fork of Little Butte Creek, near the community of Lake Creek.

Little Butte Creek starts near Mt. McLoughlin and drains 258,000 acres, much of it forested. The watershed is mostly rural—Eagle Point is the largest town—consequently, one of the biggest impacts is agricultural run-off.

“We’ve done a great job removing instream barriers,” says Tim Weaver, director of the LBCWC. He also credits the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District (JSWCD) with helping landowners convert from flood to sprinkler irrigation, which drastically reduces the load of sediment and fertilizer sent to the creek.

This latest project will develop fish habitat via LWD and channel modification.

“Instead of a single strand, we’ll be reviving side channels,” says Weaver. This will not only provide habitat for young Coho, but relieve pressure and reduce erosion during high water events.

Though the USBR paid for the design plan and acquiring permits, The LBCWC is seeking funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) and other organizations to help fund the project.

“The Bureau doesn’t have the deep pockets we thought they did,” says Weaver. Willey says the USBR can pony up more money. “But we want to stretch those dollars as far as they can go by finding matching funders and sponsors.”

The USBR and LBCWC are also dealing with some bad PR. The Lake Creek community still remembers the 1997 flood, which destroyed bridges, houses and other structures. Some residents blamed the damage on a LWD project completed by the Forest Service just one year earlier. Understandably, they’re gun-shy about having more large wood placed upstream. To that end, the USBR is leaning on the LBCWC. Early on Willey contacted Weaver and Frances Oyung of the Bear Creek Watershed Council (BCWC) to help with community outreach.

“They’re the ones that know the people, the watersheds,” says Willey, who held workshop meetings in the Lake Creek community and gave presentations at the annual meetings of both watershed councils last year. He also and reached out to the cities of Medford and Ashland, in part because the BiOp mandates the agency restore three miles of streamside habitat on Bear, Emigrant and Neil Creeks. This means planting native trees and shrubs in “degraded” areas—places choked with non-natives like Himalayan blackberry or lacking much vegetation at all.

Young Coho like cool, slow-moving water, especially in summer when temperatures soar. Stand under a tree at the height of a Rogue Valley summer and you’ll understand the value of shade; unfortunately, the canopy of vegetation buffering creeks from the sun has been stripped in many places.

The Rogue Basin has long been impaired by high water temperatures, especially in the more urbanized areas. Irrigation withdrawals reduce the volume of water in creeks and exacerbate the temperature issue, as does the release of effluent by area wastewater treatment plants. As mandated by the Clean Water Act, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) set maximum loads (called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs) for temperature and other pollutants for both the Rogue River and Bear Creek. These standards regulate both point and non-point sources of temperature pollution.

Both of the region’s wastewater plants—the City of Ashland and City of Medford—regularly exceed the thresholds for raising temperatures in Ashland Creek and the Rogue River, respectively. When Medford’s operating permit was up for renewal in 2011, the city was forced to face the issue.

“The City of Medford had two options: install refrigeration units, which are very energy intensive, or build a reservoir to hold the water until it cools down in two to three weeks,” says Jon Gasik, DEQ Water Quality specialist. Or they could plant trees.

The Thermal Credit Trading program is an innovative solution that allows entities to mitigate their impacts via “thermal credits” earned by planting trees along creeks. To earn enough credits to mitigate its temperature impact, the City of Medford must restore about 25 miles of riparian habitat within the next ten years. These projects can happen anywhere upstream of mile 62 on the Rogue River, including anywhere along Bear Creek.

“Trees work all year long and offer multiple benefits,” says Gasik. Planting trees is also much more cost-effective than buying giant chillers or digging reservoirs. Ashland is looking at a similar program and anticipates restoring 8 to 10 miles. That left the USBR with a dilemma. Since none of its required three miles can “overlap” with other restoration projects, the agency was having trouble finding areas to plant. But then Willey learned Ashland can’t earn credits on city-owned property.

“We started working closely with the City of Ashland after discovering we shared similar goals,” says Willey. “They’re the quintessential willing landowner.”

The USBR has already chosen several sites within city limits, including a reach of Ashland Creek adjacent to Hersey Park, a newer city park that includes community gardens, and a blackberry-infested portion of Kitchen Creek flowing into North Mountain Park.

Since the USBR doesn’t have as much experience with this type of restoration, it decided to subcontract the work to the Freshwater Trust, the same non-profit acting as “trading partner” with the City of Medford on its thermal credit projects. Having one organization manage all Bear Creek projects makes keeping track of them all much easier. Not that these projects represent all the streamside restoration happening along Bear Creek, much less the entire Rogue Basin.

Three falls ago, the BCWC teamed with Lomakatsi, a regional non-profit dedicated to ecological restoration, to restore a stretch of Ashland Creek near its confluence with Bear Creek. A smattering of young Ponderosa pines and Douglas-fir are thriving.

“This was all blackberries,” says Frances Oyung, BCWC coordinator. Beavers had been chopping down some of the big cottonwoods, compromising what little shade was already there. Other players got involved, including the Jobs Council, Helman Elementary, and the City of Ashland.

“The Ashland Parks Dept took responsibility, because all of a sudden there was this land that was inaccessible before,” says Oyung. Last April she landed another grant for riparian maintenance and planned a work party to plant willow stakes and knock back the blackberries again. Even though Lomakatsi has been watering plants with buckets from a cistern, there’s been a lot of mortality, she says. “There was a lot of rubbly, cobbly soil here; it’s hard for things to grow.”

One small patch, many players, and hundreds of hours of labor. Though these projects depend in part on volunteers, they also have the potential to create local jobs.

“That’s one of the things everyone in restoration talks about: bringing in dollars, contracting with local people to improve the economy,” says Oyung. “It comes down to who’s willing to pay.”

One of the first things the USBR and Irrigation Districts did was establish flow targets for strategic locations throughout the Rogue Basin. The Districts meet these targets by releasing water from reservoirs and reducing the volume diverted into canals; for example, the Talent Irrigation District (TID) releases water from Emigrant Dam to meet the specific flow target for the gage downstream. TID has met or exceeded this target for the last two years.

Flow rates affect depth and width of the channel and the number of pools, says Willey.

“In general, the more water you provide, the more habitat,” he says. The releases were designed to provide depth, cover, and ideal stream velocities for Coho at different times in their development. For instance, in summer the young fish are territorial. They like cool, slow water with plenty of cover, and tend to choose a section of pool and stay put. In winter, when flows are higher—and the chances of getting washed out increase—the fish tend to huddle together in pools sectioned off by large pieces of wood, or in side channels.

Of course, none of this matters if fish can’t get upstream in the first place. Between 2007 and 2010, four mainstem dams were removed or notched on the Rogue, opening up 153 miles of free-flowing river. An estimated 22 percent of Coho never even made it past Savage Rapids. Removing these obstacles was a huge boost for Coho and the four other runs of native migratory fish—Spring Chinook, Fall Chinook, and Winter and Summer Steelhead—that use the Rogue and its tributaries to spawn, not to mention other natives like eels and trout. The removals also opened up spawning habitat, which Chinook salmon started using immediately.

Some area fishing guides claim fish look healthier and return earlier since the dams were removed. But plenty of obstacles—physical and otherwise—remain. Some are partial barriers, or impact young fish disproportionately. A good example of this is a culvert on Larson Creek, a tributary that quietly enters Bear Creek near the newly revamped South Medford exit. Water exiting the culvert drops three feet, thwarting juvenile steelhead trying to make their way upstream. The BCWC recently received a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) to replace the culvert with a stepped structure.

The BiOp has targeted two physical obstacles to Coho on Bear Creek: the Oak Street and Ashland Creek diversions. Both eventually divert water to the Talent Irrigation District (TID) canals. Though the Oak Street structure was overhauled in 1997, problems remain, including sediment buildup and debris, which obstruct access, high velocity water in the fish passage opening, and elevation differences between the uppermost pool and ladder exit.

“Whitewater also provides a false attraction,” says Willey. “Fish may try two or three times before finding the ladder.”

The Ashland Creek Diversion, which diverts water for the TID via an underground pipeline, creates problems for juvenile Coho. The head gate isn’t screened, and young fish can get stuck in the pipe or stranded in the ditch along Oak Street. The Bureau is working on final engineering for both projects and plans to complete improvements by 2015.

“We want to do [these projects] as quickly as possible so we can see positive effects right away,” says Willey. But there may be an even better solution, at least for Ashland Creek. The TID has proposed piping the upper portion of the Talent Canal. This could save enough water to justify removing Ashland Creek diversion altogether. Though the cost of piping plus removal would cost four times as much—$1.2 million compared to $300,000 for making fish passage improvements—the benefits would be far greater.

“This would not only solve the fish passage problem, but provide an in-stream benefit by keeping the water in Ashland Creek,” says Willey. The USBR and TID have done the preliminary design and engineering and know how much water could be saved. Now they just need to find the money. The TID applied for a waterSMART grant this year but was denied, although it did receive a smaller such grant, which covered the cost of piping the canal’s tail end. The District will try again in 2014, making the funds available in 2015—just in time for the USBR to meet its deadline. Despite the tight timeline, Willey’s optimistic about finding funding for the project. “It’s a win-win for the District and for fish.”

If it proceeds, the piping project may represent the inaugural phase of the ambitious regional infrastructure overhaul known as WISE. WISE, which stands for Water for Irrigation Streams and the Economy, seeks to save water by improving the efficiency of the region’s water delivery system. It would be a boon for area agriculture, and for fish.

The Rogue River Basin Project is “complicated,” says Steve Mason, WISE project coordinator, involving two watersheds—the Rogue and the Klamath—seven reservoirs, three irrigation districts and 600-plus miles of leaky canals and laterals, some of which date back to the late 1800s. Every year between 125-135,000 acre-feet is diverted; a third of that is lost to leakage, and to a lesser extent, evaporation. Though ambitious, at its heart WISE is simple: pipe the whole thing.

“If we piped it all, we’d save enough to fill Emigrant Lake again,” says Mason. Water quality would improve for several reasons. At present, irrigation canals criss-cross streams, picking up water as they go. Flows in those streams ebb and surge with demand. Piping the water would keep the tributaries out of the delivery system, and eliminate the problem of moss and algae in the canals, which slows water down and clogs filters.

The piped network would also take advantage of 1100 feet of elevation drop, creating a pressurized system that doesn’t require pumping. Pumping can cost as much as $200-300 per acre, says Mason. “We can get high-efficiency irrigation at no extra cost.”

WISE got a boost in 2012 by qualifying as an Oregon Solutions project. Oregon Solutions is an organization that helps communities tackle complicated problems involving multiple stakeholders. Led by Representatives Peter Buckley and Senator Jason Atkinson, the group includes the three irrigation districts, seven municipalities, Jackson County, and organizations and nonprofits like WaterWatch, the Freshwater Trust and Cattleman’s Association—a veritable army of acronyms.

“We have a lot of perspectives because we’re trying to do more than just the irrigation,” says Mason. “Since it’s helping everybody, everybody should help.”

The USBR owns more than half of the Rogue River Basin Project’s facilities, including Hyatt, Howard Prairie and Emigrant Lakes; consequently, they’re acting as lead agency. It wrote the Environmental Impact Statement, and is currently wrapping up a $243,000 cost-benefit analysis funded by a Water Resources Department grant. The study will evaluate two preferred alternatives. Both call for piping everything and look at enlarging the storage capacity at Agate Reservoir and the viability of using reclaimed wastewater, but Alternative 2 calls for decommissioning and eventually removing the three diversions on Bear Creek. If this happens, the USBR’s fish passage improvements on the Oak Street diversion won’t matter. But until WISE is “reasonably certain to occur,” the agency must proceed. After all, finding the $450 million to fund WISE may prove insurmountable in these lean budgetary times.

“WISE is so large and ambitious, there’s a chance it will happen in phases, and the removals [of the diversions] could be several years away,” says Willey, who credits the irrigation districts for coming up with solutions to speed the process along.

Even without WISE, the net benefit of the USBR projects is likely to be greater than its sum, for they in no way represent the totality of efforts to improve water quality and habitat in the Rogue Basin. Each of the nine watershed councils—each made up of a board of volunteers—manages its own projects; then there are groups like Oregon Stewardship, which coordinates dozens of projects with the region’s high school and college students. Each project is a piece of the puzzle, and a unique story unto itself.

You’ll just have to get out there and see for yourself.

Watershed Council Information:

The Rogue River drains 5,156 square miles of Southwest Oregon and Northern California and includes eight hydrologic sub-basins, each represented by its own Watershed Council. The Rogue Basin Coordinating Council was formed to assist individual councils and support Basin-wide goals and projects.

  • Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council
  • Bear Creek Watershed Council
  • Illinois Valley Watershed Council
  • Little Butte Creek Watershed Council
  • Lower Rogue Watershed Council
  • Seven Basins Watershed Council
  • Stream Restoration Alliance of the Middle Rogue
  • Upper Rogue Watershed Council