Despite critical reviews, plan may trigger restoration of lower East Fork

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

Three experts who reviewed a restoration plan for 11 miles of the East Fork of the Lewis River said the plan, proposed by a Clark County river advocacy group, is flawed and should not be implemented as written.

Yet despite the critical reviews, state and local officials say they intend to go ahead with a major restoration plan of some type for the lower East Fork, which has been scarred by decades of gravel mining in its flood plain.

Fisheries officials regard the undammed East Fork as one of Western Washington's best hopes for restoring threatened steelhead and chinook and chum salmon, said Jeff Breckel, executive director of the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, which requested the reviews.

"I would look at this as a first step in a much larger process," Breckel said of the strategic plan submitted by Friends of the East Fork. The plan "provides good baseline information and sets us up to explore what we can do out there," he said.

The fish recovery board makes recommendations to a state panel on funding for salmon habitat restoration projects in Southwest Washington. On its recommendation, Friends of the East Fork received a $30,000 grant to prepare its East Fork strategic plan.

The restoration plan recommends the use of heavy equipment to place logs, boulders and other structures in streams to control erosion and create pools, riffles and side channels for fish. The techniques, known as natural channel design, were pioneered by Colorado hydrologist Dave Rosgen on Rocky Mountain streams.

But the reviewers, all Northwest experts on the movement of water and soil, said the plan relies too much on installing structures in the river to stabilize its channel and improve fish habitat.

Their reviews focused on several concerns:

* The East Fork may be too large to use natural channel design techniques, which are more appropriate on small streams. Structures could wash away in floods.

"The East Fork Lewis River must be viewed as a large, dynamic river system," wrote Peter C. Klingeman, a Corvallis, Ore., civil engineer. "Many types of conventional habitat alteration may not work here."

* Rivers in Western Washington are heavily influenced by the presence of logs, root wads and other large woody debris, but natural channel design was developed to restore smaller Rocky Mountain streams where woody debris plays a minor role.

* The proposal fails to document the historical condition of the East Fork channel and flood plain, making it impossible to predict how future conditions could affect restoration actions.

Approach controversial

Paul Bakke, a hydrologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Lacey, said in his review that natural channel design should be considered not as a first choice but as a last resort.

Washington's preferred approach to river restoration favors protecting salmon strongholds and refuges, reconnecting existing good habitat with main river channels, reducing chronic sedimentation, improving large woody debris recruitment, "and only then, when these have been considered, moving to in-stream structural work," Bakke wrote.

"Controversy exists between those who advocate for holistic recovery prescriptions and those who speak for urgent, active structural intervention. ... The approach advocated by the plan falls squarely within the latter category," Bakke continued.

But Richard Dyrland, a retired Forest Service hydrologist who is the plan's chief advocate, said natural channel design has been used successfully throughout North America, including on large Pacific Coast rivers such as northern California's South Fork of the Eel.

As for the reviewers' criticism that the plan lacks historical context, Dyrland said Fish First and Friends of the East Fork have been gathering and analyzing detailed data on the river since 1995 and that Bob Delk, the consultant who wrote the plan, reviewed historical information dating to the mid-1800s.

Letting the East Fork take its natural course by allowing it to fill old gravel pits with sediment would, over time, re-create a river reach with high-quality fish habitat and might make more sense both ecologically and economically, wrote Klingeman.

But Dyrland said that when unstable river banks threaten private property and the survival of imperiled species, letting nature take its course may not be an option.

"It could take 500 years," he said. "We could lose those species."

Dyrland and Delk stressed that it was intended to present a strategic vision and that far more data and analysis would be needed to develop a detailed operational plan.

"The purpose of the plan was to develop a discussion document aimed primarily at a lay audience," Delk wrote. "It was hoped that the plan would provide a basis for discussion and a 'Where do we go from here?' scenario."

Breckel said the plan achieved that goal.

"The reviewers were concerned, 'Did we know enough to apply the practices out there?'" he said. "When you are looking at rivers the size of the East Fork, people tend to be pretty cautious."

Gravel mining opposed

Friends of the East Fork works closely with Woodland-based Fish First, a volunteer group that has completed several successful restoration projects on a tributary of the North Fork of the Lewis River. Both groups oppose a plan by J.L. Storedahl and Sons to resume gravel mining at its Daybreak site near the East Fork.

Ann Rivers, a spokeswoman for Storedahl, said the peer reviews are evidence that opponents of gravel mining can't be trusted to use the best available science in arguing their case.

"The peer reviews really speak to the level of science that they are using," she said.

Dyrland counters that Delk conferred with "some of the most eminent people in the field" in developing the restoration plan.

Jack Kaeding, Fish First board chairman, has said his group will withdraw support for a project on the East Fork if federal fish agencies grant Storedahl a permit to resume gravel mining. A decision on whether to grant the permit is due at the end of January.

But Clark County Public Works Director Pete Capell, who supports restoration, said the two issues are unrelated.

"This is totally separate from Storedahl," he said. "This has nothing to do with that application or that project. This is just a restoration project that needs to be done."

However, Dyrland said that without the participation of Fish First and Friends of the East Fork, the project could lose support from private landowners along the river who would have to agree to allow access to their property.

"It's the landowners who are our strongest supporters," he said. "They are the key. These projects can't go forward without them."

North Clark County property owner Jim Malinowski, a Fish First board member whose land bordering Cedar Creek has been the site of several habitat restoration projects, said, "Some property owners would rather work with private groups like Fish First than with government agencies."

But he added that the East Fork has been so damaged by gravel mining, "there will be some who will be glad to see the river restored" regardless of who takes the lead.

Funding available

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the 1996 Water Resources Act, controls a fund dedicated to paying for large river restoration projects. Fish First and Friends of the East Fork initially approached the corps about considering their project for funding. But the corps also requires state or local government agency sponsors to provide a local match.

Both Clark County and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have signed on as local sponsors for the project, and Capell said the county may be able to count land it has purchased at La Center Bottom and other sites along the East Fork toward its 35 percent share of the costs.

"The land holdings that we have appear to be sufficient to cover our share," he said. The total cost of the project could run as high as $7 million.

In a letter last June, Capell urged the corps to consider funding the project.

"The lower portion of the East Fork of the Lewis River is currently in a highly disturbed and unstable condition," he wrote. "The area has lost much of its structure and complexity due to various land uses within the watershed. Historically, the river has functioned as a major source for fish rearing, waterfowl and wildlife habitat. Potential recovery of this area is good, provided that major in-stream and stream bank treatments are applied in a systematic, holistic fashion."


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