Better buffers mean healthier steelhead

In Oregon by Shauna Sherard

2014 JUL 28: The Elk River Salmon Emphasis Area outside of Port Orford, OR.



Last week, the Oregon Board of Forestry met to consider stream buffers as they revise a rule that would determine how close timber can be harvested when next to a stream or river.

The riparian rule as it’s called, stands to impact thousands of miles of water in Oregon and as such, important populations of steelhead. Increased buffers improve shade, recruit large woody debris and improve over-all health of our streams and the habitat that supports fish.

With no shade, water temperatures can rise to a lethal levels.  Summer steelhead see a spike in their metabolism when exposed to prolonged periods of warmer water and may burn too quickly through their fat reserves in this warmer water, leading to weakened immunity and/or strength and potential death. For juvenile summer and winter run steelhead, warmer water also means increased metabolism, but without the reserves adults have, it means they must feed more often and exposing them to higher risk of predation.

Currently the rules only require a 20-25 foot buffer. But the science indicates that a buffer of 110 feet is most effective.

Dean Finnerty, public lands coordinator for Trout Unlimited, gave testimony advocating the board use science to inform it’s decision:

“I live, work and play on Oregon’s famed Umpqua river near Elkton, Oregon. The past few days I’ve found numerous adult spring Chinook salmon and native summer steelhead floating dead on the surface. These salmon and steelhead were destined for the cooler waters of the North Umpqua river, but due to the 83 degree water temperature in the mainstem Umpqua, they were unable to survive this fatally warm water. In recent years, large timber harvest from non-federally managed timber lands in several Umpqua basin drainages have resulted in summer time water temperature increases adding to this warming trend. Weatherly Creek, Lutzinger Creek, Elk Creek and Burchard Creek are just a few of the streams where warmer tributary water temps are adding to this problem.

We strongly encourage the board to enact regulatory changes to increase riparian buffers along our streams to meet coldwater standards. These rule changes should NOT be voluntary.

We believe the board has the duty and obligation to all Oregonians to follow the obvious science and protect our rivers and streams from source point pollution in the form of increasing water temperatures. We believe that increasing riparian “no-touch” buffers to 110 feet on each side of the stream is the best way to achieve the goal of protecting water quality for salmon, steelhead and Bull trout.”

The Oregon Board of Forestry failed to act at this meeting, and instead sent this to a subcommittee for review, with a pending decision to be made at the September or October meeting.  To stay informed on this issue and others facing steelhead sign-up for Wild Steelheaders United.