Ice causing flooding on Catherine Creek

Ice jams such as this in 2014 on Catherine Creek outside of Union along Highway 203 present the danger of flooding. A new project to widen Catherine Creek and adjoining Little Creek would help to eliminate the jams.

UNION — The ominous sight of ice jams on Catherine Creek and Little Creek just east of Union may someday be less frequent.

Mike Knutson, a hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the formation of ice jams on the two creeks will be reduced if the proposed Buffalo Flats Restoration Project becomes a reality.

Speaking Thursday at a presentation in Union, Knutson said the project would widen portions of both Catherine and Little creeks to help reduce ice jams. The work along Catherine Creek would remove a section of Medical Springs Highway and replace it with a reconfigured roadway. Such a step would allow a narrow portion of Catherine Creek’s channel to expand. He noted the creek would push large ice blocks into this floodplain, reducing pressure in the creek.

“They would melt in the floodplain,” said Knutson, the engineer for the proposed Buffalo Flats project.

This would reduce the chance of winter ice jams, such as a 120-yard jam that formed on Catherine Creek in January 2014 east of Union. The jam posed a serious threat to Union but fortunately did not cause any major flooding.

Knutson said when water backs up behind an ice jam, it causes pressure, and when the water breaks through all at once, it can cause flooding.

The Union Soil and Water Conservation District would lead the project in collaboration with Buffalo Peak Land and Livestock, whose owners want to help restore Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout habitat while continuing to have a viable ranching operation. Andrea Malmberg, land manager of Buffalo Peak, said at the meeting if agriculture is practiced correctly it can improve the habitat of many species, including those which are endangered. Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout are listed as threatened under the federal endangered species act.

The Buffalo Flats project would restore segments of Catherine and Little creeks so they would meander as they did before their channels were straightened many decades ago for agricultural reasons. It would involve a 1.5-mile portion of Catherine Creek and 1.4-mile segment of Little Creek. The stream segments would encompass a 240-acre area belonging to Buffalo Peak.

About 100 people attended the meeting in Union Elementary School’s S.E. Miller Gym, and Knutson and other presenters fielded an array of questions from the crowd. One participant asked if widening the creeks would expand the floodplain onto property outside the Buffalo Peak land. Knutson said it would not, noting the plan calls for measures to ensure that does not occur, such as installing terraces and possibly elevating the reconfigured stretch of Medical Springs Highway.

One Union said he feared the ice blocks in the widened floodplain could quickly be swept into the stream channels of Little and Catherine creeks if water levels suddenly swelled, resulting in a major ice jam in Union or just outside it.

James Webster, conservation district manager, said if large pieces of ice were swept from the floodplains to stream channels it would not cause problems due to the new meander. Webster explained if ice were pushed into a stream channel, momentum from the new curvature of the creek soon would push it back to the floodplain.

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, several people expressed concern that all of their questions about the Buffalo Flats project had not been answered. Webster said he understood their frustration because the meeting had a two-hour time limit and there was a lot to cover. He said those with additional questions are welcome to call the Union County Soil and Water Conservation District at 541-963-1313 or go to its website,

“We are here to address any special concerns people want to talk about,” Webster said.

Those attending the meeting could submit written questions to the conservation district. Webster said the district will post answers to these questions in a fact sheet on the agency’s website. He also said Union leaders and community members are forming a focus group that will meet regularly with those involved with the Buffalo Flats project, including conservation district officials. Individuals interested in being members of the group can obtain information at the USWCD website.

Allen Childs, a biologist with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, explained at the meeting the tribes completed a similar restoration project two years ago in a stretch of Catherine Creek about 4 miles east of Union. He said the Southern Cross project is having a positive effect on young salmon and steelhead. Childs also said in 2019 this stretch of Catherine Creek had the highest density of juvenile salmon and steelhead of any he sampled in the stream.

Webster said the Buffalo Flats project would protect young steelhead and salmon, providing pools with hiding cover for juvenile fish to stay when there are high flows. This would prevent fast water from pushing the fish downstream too quickly. Webster said when young fish move out of their rearing habitat on Catherine Creek too soon, they are more vulnerable to predators because of their small size.

Developing a plan for the Buffalo Flats project could take the conservation district another two years. After  Buffalo Peak Land and Livestock gives approval for the plan, the district would seek funding for it from the Bonneville Power Administration and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board with the help of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed.

Jesse Steele of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed said at the meeting the Buffalo Flats project would likely cost between $4 million and $6 million.

Should a plan for the Buffalo Flats Restoration Project obtain that funding, Webster said it would take between two and three years to complete.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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