Jake Kimbro, front, and Travis Dixon, right, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, work alongside Joe Smietana, second from right, Jess Bohnsack and Matt Saladin, of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, to remove fish from a restoration site on Catherine Creek. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
$3.8 million plan will also address pasture losses by local landowners
Local, state and federal agencies are partnering to construct a $3.8 million bank restoration project along 4-1/2 miles of Catherine Creek to aid salmon recovery in the Grande Ronde Basin.
The project will not only benefit the fish, but also six local landowners who were losing pasture, fencing and even calves to the creek during high water events.
Phase one construction has already started and runs until Oct. 15. Four additional phases are projected to continue work into 2016.
In 2010 two landowners, Glenn Smith and Ralph Eyre, contacted the Union Soil and Water Conservation District about severe erosion problems on their land along Catherine Creek east of Union. The district brought together a coalition of agencies to address the needs of the working ranches along the creek and benefit the fish.
“The district tries to marry on-farm improvements along creeks with fish projects,” said Craig Schellsmidt, the district manager for the conservation district. “We found there was an 80-percent mortality rate of salmon between spawning grounds and when they leave the valley.”
Less than a 50-percent mortality rate would be more natural, according to Allen Childs, a fish habitat biologist from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a partner on the project.
“This reach is one of our highest priority reaches for Chinook spawning and rearing,” Childs said. “This is really just the first phase of a multiphase effort to increase the ability of this system to produce fish. It is a really important summer and winter rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook.”
The lack of habitat for juvenile fish creates crowded conditions where the young are not as healthy or able to grow as big. Increasing habitat will likely produce bigger and more-fit juvenile fish, which may help increase survival rates.
During the winters of 2009 through 2012, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife outfitted juvenile Chinook salmon with radio transmitters and tracked the fish as they moved downstream. The fish preferred deeper pools with cover habitat like overhanging vegetation or partially submerged fallen trees.
“Juvenile fish key in on scour pool locations with woody debris habitat,” said Winston Morton, a fish habitat biologist for ODFW, another partner on the project.
Prior channelization of Catherine Creek removed the meandering bends and bars that create deep pools. As the channel becomes shallower and water is pulled for irrigation during the summer, water temperatures rise, jeopardizing the fish.
“We’re creating a higher density of pools per river mile with the goal of increasing habitat,” said Jay Hovde, a civil engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation.
At one of the restoration sites, 18 cattle graze in a field where an excavator and a bulldozer are installing 40-foot logs, with massive root balls, deep into the bank to bring stability and also increase fish habitat by creating cover and deep pools.
“That is going to provide our fish habitat,” said ODFW’s Morton, pointing to the massive trees embedded in the bank.
The embedded trees will also protect landowner Ken Fite’s pasture. He lost about 150 feet of pasture plus fencing to the creek during high water.
The Bureau of Reclamation designed and produced plans for the restoration project. According to Hovde, about 48 trees — 18 to 24 inches in diameter — will be installed at this site to stabilize the bank.
“We’re on private land,” Childs said. “The neat thing about this is that we are able to come in and meet a landowner objective of stabilizing the bank and create habitat conditions.”
At another restoration site, large cement eco-blocks and silt filters create a dam to prevent sediment from spilling into the creek during the work. Stream bank erosion and past intensive livestock grazing practices contribute to excessive sediment in the creek. Sediment not only clouds the water, it drops material onto Chinook nesting sites and suffocates the eggs.
Work crews will eventually restore the badly eroded bank, but first biologists must remove the fish so workers can drain water from the site. The project has a “zero take” policy, meaning fish should not die during the entire construction process.
Dressed in dry suits and tall rubber boots, a team of five biologists from the confederated tribes and ODFW work to remove the fish.
While snorkeling, Matt Saladin of ODFW managed to herd out about 200 fish, including juvenile Chinook salmon, steelhead, whitefish, speckled dace and sculpin.
Landowner involvement in the restoration project includes full review and approval of the designs. While the work happens at no cost to the landowner, because it is funded by public dollars, landowners must enter into a 15- to 30-year easement agreement so that the restoration project area is protected.
“Our mission is to offer voluntary conservation assistance,” Schellsmidt said.
Voluntary conservation seems to be a growing trend. The conservation district has a backlog of projects with local landowners.
“Conservation values are increasing as the consciousness of our community grows,” Schellsmidt said.