Flushing for fish

Restoration of the former Coburg Aggregate gravel pits on Green Island is all about working with the water we have.

If you ask Chris Vogel, the $1 million restoration project happening this summer on Green Island is all about flushing.

Wildish Construction Company crews moved over 110,000 cubic yards of gravel to create habitat for fish at the Coburg Aggregate Reclamation Project on Green Island. Photo by River Design Group.

“We’ll be working with the same amount of water we used to get on site,” says Chris, who has been Green Island‘s restoration Project Manager for six years. “It’s just where it goes and how and how long it stays that’s different.”

Flushing is simple: in a healthy river system, you’ve got water in, and water out. When a side channel fills up and then empties out, at least a couple times a year during high water events, the river flushes any ponded water and the critters living in it down the channel. In a natural area, this flushing provides a huge range of benefits for fish and wildlife.

The CARP site is in an active side channel of the Willamette River. We call this area the historic McKenzie River channel, because the main channel of the McKenzie River flowed right through here before the big 1964 floods which moved the McKenzie-Willamette confluence to where it is today, just south of Green Island. The channel has water year round, even more in the winter.

But it’s far from a natural area.

An altered landscape

CARP stands for Coburg Aggregate Reclamation Project. Until the McKenzie River Trust purchased this 56-acre parcel in 2010, the site was mined for sand and gravel. And that created steep gravel pits with few places for native plants to take hold.

“Before restoration, when that historic McKenzie River channel filled up, it would overtop into the pits. Lots of fish – both native and non-native – would get trapped until the next high flow,” says Chris.

In other words: no flushing.

The fish didn’t have a way to escape back into the channel as the water dropped. So, stranded, the fish lived their lives in the pits. “More frequent flushing will get them out,” says Chris.

Restoration solutions

The solution is to use heavy construction equipment to grade the slopes to a more natural rise of one foot up for every ten feet out. And that’s exactly what we did this summer at CARP, hiring the Wildish Construction Company to move 125,000 cubic yards of gravel to create those slopes and the right entry and exit points for the ponds to be much friendlier to native Willamette spring Chinook salmon, Oregon chub, and other fish and wildlife.

A new side-channel bypasses gravel ponds at the Coburg Aggregate Reclamation Project on Green Island, allowing fish to go around the pits in high water events and continue on down the Willamette River system. Photo by Raptorviews by Philip Bayles.

This winter, we’ll plant thousands of willows and other native trees and shrubs along the pond edges. As the plants grow up, they’ll offer fish plenty of places to hide from predators.

The next time the water rises, we’ll see on the ground how all this work makes a difference for salmon.

“We’re always looking for ways to give life to the river,” says Joe Moll, Executive Director of MRT. “This is one of the best investments we can make to do that.”

Special thanks

The Bonneville Power Administration, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and Meyer Memorial Trust’s Willamette Special Investment Partnership provided funding for CARP restoration. Additional funds were provided by The Nature Conservancy Portland General Electric Habitat Support program, and individual donors like you.

Railroad Island Now Protected!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 3, 2012

Contacts: Nicole Nielsen-Pincus, Willamette Program Manager: nicole (at) mckenzieriver.org
Liz Lawrence, Operations Manager: llawrence (at) mckenzieriver.org
541-345-2799

McKenzie River Trust Protects Railroad Island

Land Trust Purchases 63-Acre Island in the Willamette River Near Harrisburg

Railroad Island, a 63-acre dynamic floodplain property in the Willamette River south of Harrisburg recently purchased by the McKenzie River Trust. Accessible only by boat, the Island is blanketed with cottonwood and ash forest, gravel bars, and backchannel sloughs, making it prime habitat for native fish and wildlife. Photo by Raptorviews by Philip Bayles: psb@efn.org.

(EUGENE, OR) Landowners Wayne and Pam Swango have sold a 63-acre island in the Willamette River south of Harrisburg to the nonprofit McKenzie River Trust (MRT). The land trust’s purchase of the property, now called Railroad Island, protects critical fish and wildlife habitat along a dynamic stretch of the Willamette.

Landowners Wayne and Pam Swango have roots in the area going back to the 1800s.

“Living along the river can sometimes be a challenge,” Wayne Swango says, acknowledging the river’s impact on his daily life. “We’ve lost some sheep that were stranded in high water. And part of our property is eroding – the river gives and takes whatever it wants to.”

It was partly this recognition of the river as a powerful and occasionally unpredictable force that caused the Swangos, who have roots in the area going back to the 1800s, to sell the 63-acre island. The Swangos own, live on, and farm an additional 200 acres on the east side of the river.

Railroad Island, named after the railroad bridge that crosses the land’s downstream end, is exceptional habitat for native fish and wildlife. With a network of complex gravel bars, side channels, and sloughs on the mainstem Willamette, Railroad Island is a refuge for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and migratory birds. As a natural area, the Island can also absorb high flows and lessen the impact of floodwaters.

The purchase of Railroad Island extends MRT’s conservation lands in the upper Willamette River basin. The property is several miles downstream of Green Island, a 1,000+ acre complex of fish and wildlife habitat that MRT has been restoring since 2005. In recent years, partners across Oregon have worked together to promote conservation along the Willamette. The statewide focus on the river in our own backyard attracted the attention of the Meyer Memorial Trust, and they awarded MRT a grant for pre-acquisition costs through the Willamette River Initiative. The Bonneville Power Administration contributed the additional funds for MRT to buy Railroad Island.

“Bonneville Power Administration funding helps fulfill an agreement that the State of Oregon made in 2010 to protect nearly 17,000 acres of Willamette Basin wildlife habitat,” says Lorri Bodi, the Bonneville Power Administration’s Vice President for Environment, Fish and Wildlife. “The agreement dedicates stable funding from electric ratepayers for 15 years to safeguard Willamette habitat for native species, supporting state efforts to protect the Willamette Basin and fulfilling BPA’s responsibility under the Northwest Power Act to offset the impacts of federal flood control and hydropower dams.”

Land trust accomplishments are often measured in the number of acres protected. But for Railroad Island, that may not be the best way to gauge success. “Railroad Island is a place for fish and wildlife where the dynamic river can move around without causing harm or loss of livelihood,” says Nicole Nielsen-Pincus, MRT’s Willamette Program Manager. “Gravel bars and floodplain forests provide a buffer from where people are trying to live or farm. That’s part of what makes this such a great conservation project.”

With the addition of Railroad Island, the McKenzie River Trust now owns 1,827 acres of land in western Oregon and has permanently protected an additional 1,830 acres with conservation easements. The Eugene-based land trust was founded in 1989.

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From Blackberries to Native Trees

Floodplain Restoration Continues on Green Island

Contractors have been hard at work on the south end of Green Island this month. Bulldozers, excavators, and large trucks removed four berms that limited the flow of high water onto the interior of the property. Within years, native grasses, incense cedar, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine will fill an area that was once covered in blackberry vines and reed canary grass.

MRT is undertaking this work on the higher floodplain near side channels and sloughs of the Willamette River to allow for seasonal connections that have been prevented by these berms.

Before and after views of an area where 4-foot tall berms were removed on Green Island. The berms were covered in blackberry vines and reed canary grass, and their removal makes way for planting native grasses and trees.

Active floodplains can provide many benefits to people, fish and wildlife, and they’re key to maintaining the qualities that define our Oregon landscapes. Floodplains clean water by filtering it through many layers of gravel and sediment, and they can buffer flooding impacts on downstream areas.

Floodplain side channels and sloughs also create spawning and rearing habitat for endangered salmon. Studies on Green Island completed by Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife show that Oregon chub, Chinook salmon, and other native fish use these channels throughout many phases of their lifecycles. Floodplain forests, once abundant along the Willamette River, also harbor sensitive birds, amphibians such as red legged-frogs, and reptiles like western pond turtles.

Since 2005, MRT has been working to re-establish floodplain forest habitat for fish and wildlife by removing man-made obstructions and planting over 300 acres of Green Island with native trees, shrubs, and grasses. Local farmers, hundreds of volunteers, and dozens of local contractors have been involved in restoration efforts on the 1,000+ acre property just downstream of the confluence of the McKenzie and the Willamette rivers.

The berms removed this month were originally built 20-40 years ago to reduce flooding on farm fields. The 3,500 cubic yards of sandy loam dirt that was removed will be reused in the Coburg Aggregate Reclamation Project (CARP). The former gravel mines at CARP along the eastern edge of Green Island will also be restored to native habitat in the coming years.

In recent years, habitat restoration projects at Green Island have been supported by grants from the Bonneville Power Administration, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Meyer Memorial Trust. Individual donations also support our restoration efforts at Green Island and on the other properties we protect throughout western Oregon.  For more information about Green Island, visit: https://www.mckenzieriver.org/protected-lands/owned-properties/green-island

Restoration Makes Dollars and Cents

Enhancing habitat can help build the local economy

Ecotrust recently released a report – supported in part by NOAA – concluding that restoration projects in Oregon generated $977.5 million in economic activity and as many as 6,483 jobs between 2001 and 2010. For a local example, look no further than the McKenzie River Trust and Siuslaw Watershed Council‘s (SWC) Waite Ranch Tidal Wetland Restoration Project, located on the Siuslaw River near Mapleton.

MRT recently awarded a $22,000 contract to Leisure Excavating Inc., a local company based in Florence, for work on the Waite Ranch project. Leisure Excavating owner Gary Rose and his team are removing aging infrastructure on the property to make way for the re-establishment of 211 acres of tidal wetland habitat near Highway 126, important habitat for coastal coho, Chinook and chum salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat trout. The SWC has also received contracts and secured grant funding for the Waite Ranch project, enabling them to hire new project management staff and work with local and regional businesses.

Healthy estuary habitat is often described as a nursery for economically important fish and other marine creatures. Not only is local economic benefit being provided now through these contracts and the resulting jobs, but in the future, the Siuslaw and coastal recreational and commercial fishing industries could benefit from the habitat improvements.

The first few buildings have already come down.  You can learn more about Waite Ranch and track the latest developments by visiting: https://www.mckenzieriver.org/protected-lands/owned-properties/waite-ranch/

Thank you to the Waite Ranch Tidal Wetland Restoration Project funders:

  • NOAA Fisheries Service, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and Ecotrust – Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative
  • Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – Restoration & Enhancement program
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service – North American Wetlands Conservation Act
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – Oregon Governor’s Fund for the Environment
  • Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board – Technical Assistance grant program
  • Siuslaw Watershed Council
  • Individual supporters of the McKenzie River Trust and Siuslaw Watershed Council

2011 Annual Report Available Now

Annual report highlights:

  • Ferguson Creek Conservation Easement established in the Long Tom Watershed – 62 acres of meandering streamside habitat protected.
  • $1.01 million in grants and contracts secured for land conservation projects by MRT staff.
  • Continued restoration on Green Island, including planting more than 5,300 native trees to restore the floodplain forest.
  • A 21% increase in the number of people who made a donation to MRT from 2010 to 2011.

Read the full report on our Annual Report page, or download a pdf (2 MB).

The health of our local communities is reflected in the health of the natural areas that surround us. Thank you for your donations to support land conservation in western Oregon!

If you have any questions about our Annual Report, please contact our office at 541-345-2799.

Grant awards support land conservation throughout the region

The McKenzie River Trust's 216-acre Waite Ranch on the Lower Siuslaw River between Florence and Mapleton will be the site of future tidal wetland restoration. Photo by Tim Giraudier.

Four recent grants secured by the McKenzie River Trust will support the next phase of our conservation efforts in the Upper Willamette and Siuslaw watersheds.

In the Upper Willamette, grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Meyer Memorial Trust support our continued work with landowners along the Mainstem of the Willamette River and its tributaries, including the Coast and Middle Forks of the Willamette, the Long Tom and the Lower McKenzie.

Willamette Program Manager Nicole Nielsen-Pincus will lead the McKenzie River Trust's role in the Willamette Stewardship Project partnership, which will work to remove invasive weeds on public and private land on the mainstem of the Willamette River this summer. The project was funded in part by a grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through the Oregon Governor's Fund for the Environment.

A National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant of $24,989 through the Oregon Governor’s Fund for the Environment offers support for a group of partners, including MRT, to remove invasive weeds that threaten floodplain habitats along the Willamette. Nonprofit and public agencies including MRT, the Long Tom Watershed Council, Lane County, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Northwest Youth Corps, and the Oregon Department of State Lands will work with both private and public landowners to map and remove highly invasive Japanese knotweed, English ivy, traveler’s joy, and purple loosestrife along the river. Youth crews will learn valuable job and life skills while accomplishing habitat restoration when they work on Green Island and neighboring properties this summer. We’ll keep you updated on the weed removal progress by posting photos on our Facebook page.

A 2-year, $133,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust’s Willamette River Initiative provides support for MRT staff to continue to get out the door and talk with private landowners about conservation and stewardship opportunities on their properties. The funds also support ongoing work at Green Island, which will enter its 9th year of restoration in 2013. The Willamette River Initiative website provides more details.

The McKenzie River Trust also received two grants to support tidal wetland restoration in the Siuslaw River Estuary. Awards from the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) will support the next steps toward re-developing an intact tidal estuary on the McKenzie River Trust’s Waite Ranch property between Florence and Mapleton.

Ecotrust, a Portland-based nonprofit, awarded a $61,750 grant to MRT as part of a multi-partner program called the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative (WWRI). The grant will fund the removal of aging infrastructure and decommissioning of septic tanks on the 216-acre Waite Ranch property.

A $75,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s NAWCA program will support the engineering analysis of Waite Ranch, which will inform the restoration design. This work paves the way for the re-establishment of tidal flow and productive wetlands on the property.

We expect that the long-term restoration efforts of the Waite Ranch Tidal Wetland Restoration project partners, including MRT and the Siuslaw Watershed Council, will yield approximately 211 acres of restored tidal estuary habitat and ten miles of tidal channels. This work benefits native fish like coastal coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead, and many other sensitive birds and wildlife species. The work also helps further the WWRI goal of providing local jobs and benefits to the local community as the restoration effort proceeds.

Thank you to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, Ecotrust, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s NAWCA program for supporting the McKenzie River Trust in our efforts to protect and enhance productive natural landscapes throughout western Oregon.