Meacham Creek, near Pendleton, Ore., once home to a thriving population of steelhead, bull trout and lamprey, stopped meandering about 100 years ago when gravel levees were built to protect nearby railroad tracks.
The cold, slow-winding stream was turned into a swift, straight-shot channel that emptied its waters into the Umatilla River as fast as the mountain snow melted. Raging in late winter and spring, the creek offered little if any opportunities for native fish and mussel clams to produce offspring that would return as adults to spawn.
But now, following five guiding “touchstones” in a “River Vision” developed by its Department of Natural Resources, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are holistically restoring 14 miles of the creek to its original snaking pattern.
The multi-phase, multi-year effort currently is focusing on a 1.2-mile stretch about 23 miles east of Pendleton and six miles from Meacham Creek’s confluence with the Umatilla River. The 70-acre project covers lands owned by the Confederated Tribes and the U.S. Forest Service.
“We’re rebuilding a whole new channel outside the existing flow way,” said Jim Webster, the Tribes’ Fisheries Habitat Program manager. “This project may not be the longest, but it is one of the most intense in the Northwest. Over the years, the improvements will stretch from the North Fork of Meacham Creek to the mouth.”
In addition to excavating a new meandering channel, boulders and huge root wads from 600-700 trees will be placed in the creek and floodplain, tens of thousands of trees and bushes will be planted, and a half-mile of side channels will be created. When the project is completed in 2011, it should slow and cool the water, and provide habitat benefits to migrating fish and improvements to the overall habitat of the region.
Using a detailed design plan based on historic photos and laser imaging, crews with heavy equipment removed a half mile of levees, then excavated a longer meander and a wider floodplain.
Later this summer, when flows at their lowest, Meacham Creek will be diverted to the new path from the existing creek. The swift existing channel will be backfilled using gravel and earth, some of which will come from rock and dirt piled high after removal of railroad levees.
Excavation of the historic meander in the floodplain will result in 6,100 feet of new reconfigured stream channel and 2,678 feet of new reconfigured side-channel habitat.
“It’s not our intent to control the creek,” said Mike Lambert, Umatilla Basin Habitat Project leader. “We’re trying to give it access to the floodplain to allow it to do its own thing and restore itself.”
The current project, costing $3.5 million shared by five funding partners, will:
-- Carve a meandering channel that will add more than 600 feet in length to the existing 5,470-foot channel;
-- Divert water to the new (original) meander by backfilling a mile of the current channel;
-- Remove 2,800 feet of levee to create a gravel-bed floodplain that will allow a swollen creek to spread out as it did decades ago;
-- Double the potential width of the floodplain that used to be bounded to the east by the levees;
-- Place in the creek 1,300 boulders and chunks of woody debris, including huge root wads from 600-700 trees;
-- Plant 43,000 native trees and bushes – hardwoods, Hawthorne, choke cherry, etc., many of which are from seed gathered and grown by the CTUIR Native Plant Nursery;
-- Save 80 percent of the cottonwood trees along the creek and in the floodplain, some of which will be the focal points of islands in the stream;
-- Increase tenfold the number of habitat features, including some 2,678 feet of side channels, where migrating fish can hold up or spawn on their way up and down the creek.
“We’re trying to give the river a 10-year jump start,” Lambert said. “If we just remove the levees, the meander on its own would take at least that long and significant flooding to get to where we’re actually going with this project.”
The project will “reclaim” the original channel as delineated with historic maps and aerial photography over 100 years. The new channel is being constructed within the floodplain to the east of the existing channel using bulldozers and backhoes equipped with GPS sensors that allow operators to gouge out the earth within six inches of the detailed plan.
As designed, the Meacham Creek meander will slow down the flows so water can filter through gravel bars and the floodplain to reduce the temperature of groundwater that eventually will return to the creek. At some points in the new creek bed, the new channels and their elevations will force water down into the gravel bars and into groundwater aquifers. At times Meacham Creek is expected to flow outside its banks into the floodplain where the water will be absorbed into vegetation and groundwater that later will flow as much colder water into the creek.
“It used to be people thought trees and shrubs were supposed to cool streams by providing shade,” said Eric Quaempts, Director of the Tribes’ Department of Natural Resources. “While shade is important, the driving factor is the connections between the surface and ground waters.
Now the water will flow into the floodplain and be absorbed into the gravel and rocks, and then return back to the creek as cool water.”
Meanwhile, work continues on habitat improvements along the new creek with the placement of woody debris and the planting of vegetation.
Cottonwood clumps are being protected along the banks of the creek, and on islands that split the channels and push flows into side channels.
“We saved the cottonwoods intentionally to create cottonwood islands just like you’d find in other parts of the creek. We’re trying to mimic habitat that already exists in Meacham Creek,” Lambert said.
The goal of the project is to restore, enhance and protect 70 acres of floodplain habitat while enhancing habitat for listed Mid-Columbia River steelhead and Columbia River basin bull trout, and other native fish, including spring chinook salmon and Pacific lamprey.
Overall, the Meacham Creek Floodplain Restoration and In-stream Enhancement Project, as it is called, will help protect the 176 square mile watershed.
The majority of the funding was provided by Bonneville Power Administration with other money coming from Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, USFS-Challenge Cost Share Grant, and Blue Mountain Habitat Restoration.