Science Friday: Successful habitat restoration on the Washougal River

Welcome to another Science Friday post from Wild Steelheaders United. In this space we usually review scientific studies that have implications for wild steelhead conservation and management. But we take a slightly different path this week.

I was born and raised on the banks of the Washougal River in SW Washington. The poor Washougal has suffered more than most steelhead watersheds. It was logged, then badly scorched during the drought of 1902, then splash dammed and logged some more.

 

The runoff from clearcuts and the scouring of the splash dams in the Washougal removed, literally, tons of spawning gravel from the river. How do you begin to recover a stream system that loses a big chunk of the substrate required by salmon and steelhead for spawning?

 

You do it the old-fashioned way, with lots and lots of large wood — trunk sections and root balls strategically placed in as many places as possible, to begin accumulating the remaining gravel and rebuilding channel structure.

 

Indeed, this is the strategy adopted by the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group, started by Tony Meyer and carried on today by Brice Crayne — two fellows who have shouldered more than their share of hard habitat restoration work.

 

There is a tremendous amount of evidence, supported by numerous research efforts, on the value of large wood structure for streams and fish. However, most large wood projects are fairly small in scale, tending to focus on a pool or two, a single stream reach perhaps. The work in the Washougal is different. It focused on the entire upper river, including the splash-dammed main-stem and the tributaries that were scoured by the Yacolt Burn and subsequent logging.

 

Today we share with you a story about this work. It is wonderful to see how the river is responding — and most importantly, how the wild summer steelhead that rely on the upper Washougal are doing now (wild steelhead in the Washougal are today faring as well as at any time in recent history — in fact, there are more wild summer steelhead now in some years than when I was a boy living on the river).

 

Providing examples of how habitat restoration can improve stream function and fish populations is never easy because of all the variables influencing fish stocks. However, it is clear that LCFEG’s large wood enhancement work in the Washougal is exactly the type and scale of habitat restoration that makes a big difference for steelhead. We salute Tony and Brice for all the hard work they have accomplished on the Washougal, and thank all the folks they worked with that helped make it happen.

 

Opening Eden for Steelhead Trout

Written by Patrick Cooney (Smith Root) and Brice Crayne (Lower Columbia RFEG)

Log jam on Bluebird Creek. Photo Credit: Tony Meyer 98 feet long and 5 feet in diameter logs. Photo Credit: Brice Crayne

 

Manmade log jam blocks creek (Patrick Cooney)

 

Old growth trees in the massive jams (Patrick Cooney)

 

A recent fire burned through the northern edge of Oregon in the Columbia River Gorge in September of 2017 after teenagers purposely threw firecrackers off a steep trail along Eagle Creek, another tributary to the Columbia River.  Ironically, 115 years earlier, teenagers in Eagle Creek were trying to burn out a wasp nest and accidentally created the Yacolt Burn of 1902. The Yacolt Burn is considered among the worst fires in US history.  Darn history loves to repeat itself.

 

 

The Yacolt Burn burned much of the same forest in Oregon as the more recent Eagle Creek fire, but also burned over 100,000 acres of virgin old growth forests in Washington.  Yes, that fire was so large, it jumped the Columbia River and devastated the logging industry of southwest Washington.  The massive charred trees that were victims of the Yacolt Burn stood for more than 50 years before man would come through and dislodge them into the streams where they would wreak havoc on the local fish populations.

 

Burned trees still stand in the Columbia National Forest 35 years after the Yacolt Burn. (Source)

 

In order to float the large logs downstream, the river bed was scoured by heavy equipment and check dams were installed along the course of the river.  As the logging practices were abandoned, many of the old growth logs that were left behind mobilized in heavy flows and lodged at pinch points in the river, creating massive and impenetrable barriers.

 

One of two log jams on Bluebird Creek blocking the upstream migration of Summer Steelhead. Photo Credit: InterFluve, Inc.

 

Additionally, a quarter mile of stones backed up behind some of the log jams and forced the river to go subterranean.  It quickly became apparent why migratory fish were no longer able to gain access to once thriving spawning habitat in the upper reaches of the Washougal River.

 

 

An assessment in 1997 noted:

“…large log jams … have become cemented with gravel accumulating behind the jams. The condition of these jams needs assessment, as the jams potentially restrict passage, and block the movement of gravel to downstream reaches.” (Source)

 

Log jams have blocked Bluebird Creek for 50 years, and gravel backed up behind log jam forces the creek to go subterranean for a quarter mile. Skamania County, Washington. Photo: Patrick Cooney

 

The Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group received funding to break up the log jams and provide access for fish to the upstream spawning habitat.  However, in order to carry out this task, they needed to bring in heavy equipment.  Prior to driving heavy equipment in the river bottom, all of the fish needed to be removed from the work site to minimize any further harm.  This is where my help and access to electrofishing equipment was most needed.

 

Brice Crayne of Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group inspects the lower edge of the log jam where Bluebird Creek emerges. Photo: Patrick Cooney

 

History of the Washougal

By Patrick Cooney

 

Prior to European arrival, the Washougal River was inhabited by the Washougalles, a tribe of Chinook Indians, who enjoyed the spoils of year-round runs of Salmon and Steelhead.  They also hunted the seals that congregated in this area because of the abundant fish populations. Accordingly, Lewis and Clark titled the Washougal River as “Seal River” and “Sealcalf River” during their adventures.

 

“…a Small river falls in about 80 yards wide and at this time discharges a great quantity of water [Washougal River]. The nativs inform us that this river is very Short and heads in the range of mountains to the N E of its enterance into the Columbia the nativs haveing no name which we could learn for this little river we call it Seal river [Washougal River] from the great number of those Animals which frequents its mouth. this river forks into two nearly equal branches about 1 mile up and each branch is crouded with rapids & falls.” -Clark, March 31, 1806.

 

Map of the Lewis and Clark expedition, with Seal River that is now known as Washougal River. (Source)

 

The seals no longer congregate at the mouth of the river where a massive paper plant has been in operation since 1883, and the fish runs are a small fraction of their original size.  Programs like the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group aim to reverse these trends through habitat improvements.

 

Mouth of the Washougal River in 1937.

 

Fish Removal (Patrick Cooney)

Five of us set out on an epic journey, climbing up old logging roads, passing through fern forests, and descending into the river bottom.  The water of Bluebird Creek was so clear, the sediment load so minimal, and the fish were isolated in distinct pools, that we were able to electrofish from upstream to downstream without worry that we would make the water turbid or that fish would escape.  It is a rare occasion to find such a stream and is a great indication of amazing spawning habitat for salmon and trout.

 

 

To capture fish, two people wore backpack electrofishers, two dip netted fish, and one person managed the aerated buckets and instream livewells.  During the day, we encountered at least four species of fish, giant Pacific salamanders, and handled about 200 total critters.

 

 

Electrofishing entails applying a very specific electric current to the water to temporarily immobilize the fish where they can be scooped up and placed in an aerated bucket where they rapidly recover.  The ability to use this equipment in this region of the world is heavily regulated and only allowed when done properly by licensed and permitted scientists.

 

 

The newest technology successfully tracked our electrofishing efforts over the half mile where we collected fish. Each dot on the map indicates a second of electrofishing effort and the different colors correspond to the electrofishing settings used to succeed in the differing habitats.

 

Smith-Root’s APEX electrofisher tracked our electrofishing efforts as we removed fish from the reach of river and placed them in the mainstem Washougal (right). Photo Credit: Patrick Cooney

 

2018 Construction

By Brice Crayne

 

With the fish out, the upstream end isolated by a gravel bar plain, and a block net set at the downstream end to prevent fish from migrating back into the treatment reach, the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group was ready to break ground. Working with Mike Watters Excavation, we walked two 330-class excavators across the Washougal, up an old logging road, back across the Washougal, through the Bluebird Creek alluvial fan, and into the lower end of Bluebird Creek. We started out pushing up an sand and gravel barrier at the bottom end of Bluebird Creek and re-routing the flow into hole we dug in the alluvial fan; this way, all the turbidity that we created as we dismantled the dams would settle out before it reached the Washougal River.

 

We walked the equipment right up the creek bed. One excavator outfitted with a rock hammer (330-D), the other with a clam-shell attachment with hydraulic jaws (330-FM). The first jam was about 400’ from the confluence with the Washougal. The FM picked it apart, setting large pieces aside for future use and using smaller broken pieces to build a ramp up and over the jam; it only took him 45 minutes to get a 100K lb. excavator over the lower jam. The team worked together to dismantle the first jam just enough to safety navigate over but we left it mostly in place to use as a filter for any turbidity coming out of the upper worksite. By day two, both jams were dismantled and the contractor, LCFEG project manager, and two engineering firms all discussed the pros and cons of material placement. We had 15,000 cubic yards of sediment and 5,000 cubic yards of woody debris to sort through and place in a strategic manner. We didn’t want all the wood from the upper jam to flow down and reform the barrier in the lower nick point. We didn’t want to stage the spawning gravel and other sediment in a place where the creek couldn’t get to it. What we wanted, was a complex set of step pools creating a series of pools and riffles from the upper watershed to the mouth. We spent the next two weeks sorting through the buried sediment for large key pieces that could be unseen barriers, staging smaller woody debris and rock in strategic places where the creek could take it piece by piece over an estimated 5-10 years, and using the larger pieces to build channel-spanning woody structures in Bluebird Creek from the upper jam site to the confluence. The end product wasn’t pretty. We had mounds of rock and wood staged up in the sediment plane above the upper jam and below the lower jam. But we had connectivity, a good plan, and a series of time-lapse cameras to watch the material move throughout the winter.

 

 

 

Figure 1: Upper log jam pre-construction. Time lapse camera. Photo Credit: Brice Crayne
Figure 2: Upper log jam during construction. Time lapse camera. Photo Credit: Brice Crayne
Figure 3: Upper log jam immediately post-construction. Time lapse camera. Photo Credit: Brice Crayne

 

As of December, 2018 we only had one high water event which according to the gauge at Hathaway Park never even hit 10K cfs and would only be categorized as an ordinary high water event. That said, a site visit in late December showed that our 5-10 year plan of exporting the material had been an underestimate. Bluebird Creek had already moved about 90% of the staged sediment out of the upper worksite and 70% out of the lower worksite. All of the channel-spanning structures were filled to the brim with new spawning-sized gravel with beautiful plunge pools below. We did our part to free the sediment and wood, and the creek responded beautifully.

 

Figure 4: Upper log jam 3 months post-construction. Time lapse camera. Photo Credit: Brice Crayne
Upper Bluebird jam site showing an open, flowing creek with minimal material remaining to export. Photo credit: Brice Crayne.
Large wood placed in Bluebird Creek between the upper and lower dam sites has created a dynamic creek connected from toe to toe. Photo credit: Brice Crayne
Photo looking upstream at where the sediment plane used to be at the lower worksite; the person and dog are walking along the pre-construction sediment backed up behind the old log jam. Photo credit: Brice Crayne

 

Additional References:

 

Lewis and Clark Seal River, Washookal Creek map, photographs up the river (http://columbiariverimages.com/Regions/Places/washougal_river.html)

 

Washougalles (https://portcw.com/the-local-chinookan-royal-family/)

 

Steelhead Map https://www.nwcouncil.org/sites/default/files/Vol._II_Ch._15_Washougal.pdf