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$1.6 Million Fish Passage Project Will Open 17 Miles Of NE Oregon Habitat For Migratory Fish
Posted on Friday, July 14, 2017 (PST)

Steelhead and rainbow trout will have an easier time traveling the streams around the La Grande Reservoir in northeast Oregon with the recent $1.6 million construction of fish passage in the Beaver Creek watershed.


The watershed, on Wallowa-Whitman National Forest land south of the city, was once La Grande’s primary water source, U.S. Forest Service La Grande District Ranger Bill Gamble said. Deep water wells replaced the city’s dependency on Beaver Creek, but a diminishing groundwater supply means the reservoir is still critical for future water security.


In 2013 the Forest Service completed an environmental analysis of the city’s use of the Beaver Creek watershed and renewed its special use permit for another 20 years. Gamble said fish passage was not a Forest Service requirement, but the permit requires the city to follow all state, federal and local laws. Fish passage is an Oregon state requirement through House Bill 3002, passed in 2001.


“Essentially, the state requires passage over artificial obstructions,” Gamble said. House Bill 3002, states, “…fish passage is required in all waters of this state in which native migratory fish are currently or have historically been present.”


Grande Ronde Model Watershed of La Grande helped secure funding for the project and provided a technical review. Director Jeff Oveson said a member of his staff, Jesse Steele, snorkeled in Beaver Creek and its tributaries and found steelhead, one of the state’s listed migratory fish species.


Even before House Bill 3002 passed in the early 2000s the city was considering fish passage. Norm Paullus, director of public works for La Grande, said since passage over the dam was first considered 18 years ago, he is the third person to fill the public works position.


Paullus said fish are often seen stuck at the base of the dam where eggs laid by spawning fish would dry up on the porous rocks.


Just getting to the dam is tricky for fish. Oveson said Beaver Creek’s steep gradient made it difficult to build a more natural fish passage.


“The stream going up to the dam is steep, rugged country,” Oveson said.


“With the criteria established by the state and federal government we wanted to develop a design that would realistically create an artificial stream.”


Gamble said 65 pre-cast concrete weir structures were installed in the steep gradient, changing the existing spillway into a set of pools and steps over the dam. Trees with intact rootwads and boulders were used to change the channel connections, so fish can get up and over the obstructions.


Paullus said from the dam downstream there was a 30 to 40 foot vertical drop over the course of 500 feet. The vaults are like gradual stair steps; holding pools that allow fish to rest.


The other four fish barriers, Gamble said, are points of diversion along the stream that go into pipelines.


“This will open quite a lot of spawning and rearing and will benefit resident fish as well,” Gamble said.


Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife provided input, such as how and where to relocate fish during construction and what rock sources to use in the new channels.


More than 17 miles of habitat above the dam will now be available for migratory fish in a pristine forest that Paullus said has never been logged. There are few roads in the watershed near Ladd Canyon and there is no direct vehicle access to the dam.


Part of the project’s delay revolved around building passage that wouldn’t negatively impact the environment, Paullus said.


Bonneville Power Administration ratepayer fees and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board lottery funds provided a majority of the funding. The City of La Grande committed $600,000 to the project, Paullus said; mostly from the $20,000 La Grande receives each year through an agreement with Oregon Water Trust. The agreement allows the Trust to take water out of the reservoir and put it in the stream at certain times of the year to help fish in the lower Grande Ronde River. A valve on a pipe at the bottom of the dam can be opened to regulate downstream flow.


“They were looking at adding volume and taking it out of the reservoir,” Paullus said. “The advantage we didn’t realize was having cold water coming off the bottom of the lake – warm water kills fish.”


The area around the reservoir accessible from the Ladd Canyon exit south of La Grande is popular for hikers, cyclists and horseback riders, but during construction pedestrian traffic is discouraged. June 20 a notice posted on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest website was prompted by reports of “near misses” between heavy equipment operators and pedestrians. The notice says the main access road for construction crews is Forest Road 4305-270 is already closed to vehicular traffic.


Construction is scheduled for completion by Nov. 1.


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