In 2009, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board provided support for McKenzie River Trust to create this poster about the function and value of hyporheic zones in rivers. Hyporheic zones are river flows under and adjacent to river channels where riverwater and groundwater meet. When we protect floodplain lands like Green Island, Finn Rock, and Waite Ranch we are ensuring these hyporheic zones remain intact and healthy, providing numerous benefits for ecosystems and people.
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Poster design by Ryan Ruggiero, MRT Land Protection Manager from 2008-2014
It was nearly impossible to have a conversation over the noise of the bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks. Earlier this month on Green Island, where the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers come together, over twelve thousand cubic yards of soil were being transported.
The McKenzie River Trust acquired 865 acres of Green Island in 2003, recognizing that such extensive acreage, river channels, and off-channel areas provided tremendous opportunities to implement conservation strategies that had been developed by many partner organizations working in the Upper Willamette Basin.
As MRT and our partners have gotten to know the area better over the last 14 years of management and restoration efforts, the foresight of that initial acquisition and subsequent additions to the property has become increasingly apparent. The Green Island project, presently about 1,100 acres in size, gives us the chance to move beyond talking, and walk the talk of large-scale floodplain restoration.
Transforming a pond, restoring a river
With the support of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Bonneville Power Administration, and a Pacific General Electric Habitat Support grant administered through The Nature Conservancy, we took one more step this summer to increase river-floodplain hydrologic connection and improve habitat quality.
Contractors used heavy equipment to remove a 350 foot by 150 foot levee, originally constructed to make the land more suitable to farming. An existing pond wall was opened, transforming the pond into an alcove that should connect to the floodplain in high water, spreading the river over about 3 acres that was previously inaccessible.
The next step will be to stabilize the site with native grass seedlings. Later this winter, we’ll plant cottonwoods and willows to restore the site.
As the noise of the bulldozers fade, and the calls of birds can be heard again, a conversation will continue: a conversation between the land and the rivers that cradle it.
Before you can even see them, the turtles know you’re there. As you walk towards the ponds, you hear soft plops and see rings in the water. Western pond and western painted turtles escape quickly into the water from their sunbathing perches. Once they realize you are not a predator, they cautiously stick their heads out of the water and slowly climb back onto the logs and rocks that dot the surface of the ponds at Finn Rock Reach.
During the warm months, these native Oregon species spend their days basking on logs, rocks, and even floating plants. As spring turns into summer, adult female turtles begin to lay their eggs in nests in the ground. They cover them with dirt, and the eggs are warmed by the summer sun. With luck, by the time the salmon return to their spawning grounds in nearby Elk Creek, a few of the new crop of hatchlings will crawl out and slip quietly into the ponds with their parents. The rest will emerge the following spring.
Home Waters for Rare Turtles
Both of the turtle species found at Finn Rock Reach are rare in the Willamette Valley. Luckily, this area contains some of the most diverse habitat of the upper McKenzie River. In addition to providing a home for western pond and western painted turtles, Finn Rock is home to Chinook salmon and other native fishes including stickleback; elk; beaver; otter; mink; a wide variety of dragonflies, damselflies, and butterflies; and more.
Turtles need specific characteristics in their habitat, both in water and on land. Western pond turtles are usually found in ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. Western painted turtles prefer slow moving, shallow water, like streams, canals, sloughs, and ponds. Both nest on land, typically close to the water. The ponds at Finn Rock have a very stable water level, which makes it easy for turtles to find nesting sites that will stay dry during the winter.
One of our goals is to make Finn Rock Reach the best possible habitat for all species. The 278-acre property was purchased by McKenzie River Trust in 2015/16 and includes 2 miles of river frontage. The former landowner, Rosboro timber company, built the ponds so that they could gather gravel to construct roads across their network of lands in the McKenzie basin. Nobody suspected that these man-made ponds would attract such sensitive turtle species.
Learning More, Day by Day
To find out how our turtles are using the area, our stewardship interns are making regular visits to the ponds. They’re observing how the turtles are currently using the ponds by watching basking behaviors, taking count of each species, and mapping their nests. The information gathered from this research will help inform our management plan for the property.
The next step is restoration to help improve the habitat. Restoration will likely include re-grading the banks of the ponds and planting them with natural vegetation to improve nesting and rearing areas. It will also likely include making the area less conducive to invasive species, and creating better basking spots.
Balancing Needs for Turtles and Salmon
Before the ponds were created, this area was a natural floodplain. During the winter and larger flood events, the river would expand on to the floodplain, creating lots of side channels. These slow moving waters are the perfect habitat for young salmon, which aren’t yet strong enough to take on the fast flowing river. Today, though, the high, steep edges of the ponds prevent the river from making these connections and creating side channels.
The challenge we now face is how to restore floodplain habitat for juvenile salmon, while still keeping the ponds and dry nesting habitat for our native turtle species. One possibility is to turn part of the pond area back into floodplain, while keeping a section as ponds for turtle habitat. Fortunately, turtles are smart creatures, and they will be able to utilize the remaining nesting areas.
What You Can Do
It’s important to protect these habitats as our population expands and demands on the McKenzie River grow.
If you’re interested in seeing the turtles and exploring Finn Rock Reach, please join us on one of our tours and let us know that you want to learn more. We would be happy to sit down or walk the land with you to introduce you to the projects at Finn Rock and elsewhere in the watershed.
Harper Johnson is an outreach intern with McKenzie River Trust. Harper is a junior at Williams College in Massachusetts, double majoring in Psychology and Economics. She grew up in Eugene and spent many summers enjoying the McKenzie River and other wild areas throughout Oregon. She most recently did research on the Colorado River Delta as an intern at an organization dedicated to protecting special places in Baja California and is excited for the opportunity to work at a similar organization in her hometown. She is interested in outreach and communications and is excited to have the chance to explore this at a land trust and gain valuable experience throughout the summer.
Because of members like you, an Oregon native makes a comeback
It was the early 1990s. Like many of our native fishes, the Oregon chub was in trouble.
Chub lived their lives in the moist backwater channels and sloughs of the Willamette Valley’s lush rivers and streams. But those streams had fewer and fewer rich habitat areas for the chub to thrive. Braided rivers with plentiful meanders, oxbows, and diverse floodplains that had once blanketed the Willamette Valley were now largely developed or cut off from the river.
In 1993, with only 1,000 known Oregon chub remaining, the fish was listed as endangered.
Together with our members, MRT has played an important part in the comeback of Oregon chub. Because of support from people like you, we’ve protected places for chub to grow and thrive, six places on the Lower McKenzie River.
In the coming days and weeks, we’ll share a few stories of MRT members who aided the recovery.