Saving the East Fork: $7 million plan targets redesign of river to restore stability
Clark County, WA - When Richard Dyrland retired and moved to the East Fork of the Lewis River, he saw Clark County's premier steelhead stream through a hydrologist's eyes.
He saw a damaged river, pummeled by six major gravel mining operations since the 1940s; a shallow, fast-shifting river that had left old channels high and dry; a hungry river that was undercutting steep banks, toppling cottonwoods and threatening river-view homes. He saw a watershed that had been drained, logged and scarred by roads and a stream that no longer offered high-quality habitat for native steelhead, and coho and chum salmon in its lower reaches.
During 30 years as a Forest Service hydrologist, Dyrland had learned plenty about river restoration. He was convinced that with $7 million, the required state and federal permits, a backhoe and an excavator, the lower river's natural channel could be restored to stability -- perhaps even in a single season.
But no project of the scope he had in mind had been tried in the Northwest.
Dyrland began to believe that there was hope for the East Fork when he joined Fish First, an organization of volunteers with a track record of successful restoration projects, and Friends of the East Fork, a group organized to fight new gravel mining on the river.
"I was able to see that this is not a lost cause," he said.
With a $30,000 grant from the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, Friends of the East Fork hired a Billings, Mont., consultant to study the lower river and prepare an assessment and strategic plan.
Now Dyrland has a blueprint for restoring a seven-mile stretch of the East Fork, from Lewisville Park to Mason Creek, that's based on "natural channel design," an approach developed by Colorado consultant Dave Rosgen. Rosgen and Dyrland met years ago, when they both worked for the Forest Service.
The plan is bold. It involves moving dirt around with heavy equipment in the river channel -- lots of dirt. It's bound to be controversial.
Rosgen, who founded Wildland Hydrology in Pagosa Springs, Colo., has designed and completed more than 40 major projects, most of which are in the Rocky Mountain states, the Southwest and California. His largest project, privately funded by a rancher, reconfigured 21 miles of the Little Snake River on the Colorado-Wyoming border and brought back its native cutthroat trout. Since 1968, he has trained hundreds of state and federal workers to use natural channel design.
Though Rosgen's approach has produced impressive results elsewhere, it has never been attempted on a large scale in the Pacific Northwest. Even some of its supporters say it may be too daring ever to be implemented on the East Fork.
Working against it, ironically, are the many regulatory hurdles imposed by the agencies charged with protecting threatened salmon and steelhead. Even Bob Delk, who prepared the strategic plan, gives it only a one-in-four chance of being implemented.
"It's too political," he said.
The free-running East Fork rises in the Washington Cascades and flows 43.5 miles to its confluence with the Lewis River's North Fork. It is a river roiled by controversy.
* The East Fork harbors threatened wild steelhead and chinook and chum salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act, so under federal rules in-stream work is permitted only during short windows when spawning fish are not present. That could make getting permits for major in-channel restoration projects a hard sell.
* The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expect to decide by late fall whether to allow Kelso-based J.L. Storedahl & Sons to resume gravel mining on 161 acres near a stretch of the East Fork already ravaged by decades of gravel mining. Fish First and Friends of the East Fork are fighting the proposal. Last spring, Gov. Gary Locke and U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray wrote letters endorsing Storedahl's habitat conservation plan. Spending millions more dollars to restore the East Fork, if gravel mining resumes, might be a questionable use of public funds.
* Battle Ground wants to expand its city limit north to the East Fork and allow industrial development near a large spring that feeds the river. Yet Dyrland insists it's not Storedahl's gravel mining proposal or Battle Ground's expansion plan that is driving his East Fork vision.
"We want to keep them separate," he said. "We want to make it clear we're not talking about just one problem."
Although the prospect of getting funding and approval for a major redesign of the lower East Fork is daunting, proponents say that doesn't mean Rosgen's approach can't work in Northwest rivers.
"It will work here," Delk said. "All you're trying to do is find a dynamic equilibrium. A river is dynamic, it's going to move. The method that Dave has developed is an effort to find that equilibrium, find the pattern of the river."
In fact, Rosgen uses the East Fork in his courses as a case study in how to apply channel design.
"The East Fork of the Lewis is not a stream that is going to fix itself," Rosgen said in an interview from his Colorado ranch. Because the river carries so much sediment and cobble-sized rock, if it gets too wide and shallow, it can't move the material downstream, he said.
Rosgen says one reason natural channel design has been slow to take off in the Northwest may be perception.
"They see equipment going into a stream as bad, but that stream has had a lot of bad over the years. ... You don't do major restoration on a river that is healthy. Rivers are self-formed and self-maintained. It's when man intervenes and creates a disturbance that rivers are altered. We try to get some stability back."
A skeptic's view
David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist, calls Rosgen's natural channel design a "cookbook approach" to river restoration and says he's skeptical that it will work on rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Montgomery co-authored a professional paper that described the failure of two Rosgen-model projects undertaken in the mid-1990s, one in Maryland, the other in northern California.
"It's only very recently that people have gone back and looked at the monitoring of these projects," he said.
In both cases, the rivers abandoned their redesigned channels, cutting new channels through their constructed floodplains. The Uvas Creek project, near Gilroy, Calif., failed in the 100-year flood in 1996.
The presence of large trees and large amounts of woody debris makes Northwest rivers unique, Montgomery said.
"The dynamics of rivers here are completely different from areas that lack large trees. Restoring rivers is complicated. It takes a lot of experience, it takes a lot of knowledge of regional rivers and their dynamics."
Steve Zembsch, who oversaw a successful natural channel design project in northern California, has heard the skeptics' concerns. Because rivers in the Rockies are fed by reliable infusions of snowmelt, while Northwest rivers depend more on rainfall, which fluctuates wildly from season to season and year to year, there's a school of thought that Rosgen's techniques won't work here, he said.
Zembsch doesn't buy that regional differences make the Rosgen model unworkable in the Northwest.
"Look upstream or downstream from your problem reach, study those reaches, stick to what is working in nature. If you do that, you can't go wrong," he said.
Using Rosgen's approach in the Northwest is mainly a matter of using woody debris in place of boulders, said Jeff Rose, a civil engineer in the Portland regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rose has taken all of Rosgen's courses and has designed and implemented two natural channel design projects, one in northern Idaho and the other in north-central Washington's Methow Valley.
The goals are straightforward, Rose said: to design a channel that is stable in its dimensions, its pattern and its profile.
"This is simply physics combined with hydraulics," he said. "Gravity is gravity. Those things don't change with respect to where you are on the planet."
Some advocate letting nature take its course in river restoration. But Dyrland said that only works in the absence of human interference, and it requires patience. Results come slowly, over centuries.
On the East Fork, past gravel mining has drastically changed the river's channel and its hydrology, he said. The East Fork depends on springs, especially in summer.
"It's the springs that maintain the temperature and flow."
The old Ridgefield gravel pits, mined in the past, have filled with groundwater that otherwise would have flowed into the river, Dyrland said. That has reduced the river's flow and raised its summer temperature, threatening salmon and steelhead. The mining itself releases superfine sediment, which clogs the river and buries spawning gravels.
Rosgen stresses that gravel mining is not always incompatible with river restoration. If it occurs on terraces above rivers, he said, it can often be done without adverse effects.
The East Fork strategic plan proposes major restoration work on six reaches of the lower river as well as two dozen smaller projects on its tributaries.
It calls for using backhoes to open dry side channels that provide rearing habitat for young fish, constructing earthen benches to shift and deepen the main channel, adding spawning gravels, deepening tributary streams, replacing fish-blocking culverts and other obstacles, and adding logs, boulders and woody debris.
In recent months Dyrland has shared the plan with Clark County commissioners; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings; U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver; and James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who toured Fish First projects on nearby Cedar Creek in June.
The next phase, Dyrland said, will involve soliciting support from the county and other parties, seeking funding to prepare more detailed project plans and briefing the 140 landowners who own property along the river. Some have watched cliffs below their homes erode and trees topple into the East Fork due to the force of the shifting channel.
Fish First volunteers will ask landowners to sign agreements stating what they will and will not be willing to do with their land.
"The landowners have been very positive. A lot of them are very concerned about the river," Dyrland said.
Steve Landino, National Marine Fisheries Service director for Washington, said his agency is sending staff to get training in Rosgen natural channel design techniques. Landino just issued a permit to Fish First that will allow it to undertake 22 separate projects on the Lewis River system. The volunteer group, praised by President Bush on Aug. 21 for its work in restoring salmon habitat, is the first in the state to get this type of blanket permit. Many of the projects will use natural channel design concepts. But Landino said the major in-stream channel work described in the East Fork strategic plan would require additional scrutiny by his agency.
Jeff Breckel, director of the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, said a project as ambitious as the one Dyrland advocates would be a stretch for his agency, which recommends projects in Southwest Washington for funding by the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
"This is a pretty big leap," he said. "Restoration as Dick envisions it is far beyond anything we have been involved in on the Lower Columbia. I think it's well beyond the capabilities and funding sources that we deal with."
More study would be required, Breckel added, before change could happen on the ground.
Dyrland knows that what he envisions won't happen overnight, but he's eager to get started. He enjoys working with Fish First volunteers, who have built net pens and fencing, removed fish-blocking culverts and restored several miles of Cedar Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Lewis River.
"In the past," he said, "people never got out of the huddle and started carrying the ball. It almost seemed like the process was the product."
Last September, with a grant from the funding arm of the U.S. Fishing Tackle Manufacturer's Association, Fish First volunteers used heavy equipment to dig a new chum salmon spawning channel near Mason Creek and connect it with the East Fork.
Chum had been absent from the river for many years. By December, they were spawning in the new channel.
Saving the East Fork: Damaged rivers get a bold makeover
Managers at California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the 1980s faced a crisis: the rampaging South Fork of the Eel River was undercutting the terrace where the Rockefeller Grove of 2,000-year-old redwoods grew. The towering redwoods were toppling into the river, and the river was threatening the supports of a nearby highway bridge.
State park engineers came up with a plan to save the ancient redwoods by armoring 7,000 feet of the riverbank with riprap at a cost of $5 million. But when Steve Zembsch, a parks ecologist, reviewed the plan, he had reservations.
"I had an intuitive feel that it was wrong," Zembsch said. "It seemed incongruous to bring people into this primeval redwood grove and have this god-awful engineering project running through it. You don't screw up the river to protect the redwoods."
He contacted Luna Leopold, an expert in channel morphology at the University of California at Berkeley. Leopold, son of the renowned naturalist Aldo Leopold, agreed to come and have a look. He brought along Dave Rosgen, a former Forest Service hydrologist who had experience restoring rivers using an approach called natural channel design.
"There had been so much logging in the watershed, it was atrocious," Rosgen recalled. "There were tremendous sediment problems." Because the volume of sediment exceeded the river's power to move it downstream, it had formed a sandbar in midstream, shifting the river's course. The Eel was getting wider, shallower and more sinuous. As it carved new meanders in its floodplain, it undercut the redwood grove.
With help from Leopold, Rosgen redesigned the project to treat the cause of the problem by reshaping the river channel.
Crews treated 3,000 feet of the channel between August and October of 1987. They brought in equipment to dig out the sandbar. They used the excavated material to create a new 40-foot-high floodplain below the eroding bank. They shaped a point bar to redistribute the river's energy and added boulders, root wads and logs.
The effect was immediate: Rosgen's work narrowed and deepened the channel and stopped the erosion. The redwoods and the bridge supports were saved. The total cost: $300,000.
"We monitored it for three years," Rosgen said. The reconstructed river channel functioned as intended. And Zembsch, now a river restoration consultant near Monterey, Calif., said the project changed the way California parks managers undertook river restoration statewide.
"It was extremely controversial," he said. "The engineer who worked for state parks was really angry that his project got taken away from him and redesigned. But after this project, state parks redirected their entire river restoration philosophy. There was a revolution in the way channels were treated."
Gary Fregein, Zembsch's supervisor at the time, said the revolution didn't happen overnight. Fregein, now a state parks administrator, turned from skeptic to convert after he saw the results of Rosgen's work. But he said the civil engineers who design these projects are slow to change their ways.
"Many of them are not informed about natural channel design," he said. "They pick up a manual and the way it says to do it is to put in a trapezoidal channel and armor the banks. Unfortunately, many of the new innovative techniques you can't put in manuals."
"It's a fair criticism," said Jeff Rose, a civil engineer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland who has taken all of Rosgen's courses. Natural channel design requires engineers to work closely with hydrologists and geomorphologists, he said, and that's a good thing, because they can learn from each other. But ultimately, he added, "A lot of this work needs the blessing of the engineers to get permitted."
Academic credentials also come into play. Some university-based scientists question the qualifications of Rosgen, who does not have a Ph.D., and doubt that the land managers who take his short courses get the theoretical foundation they need to design river restoration projects.
"You cannot teach river restoration through a short course," said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist who edited a book about watershed restoration in Puget Sound. "My deepest fear is that people will think there is a recipe" for such projects, he said.
Any proposals to use the Rosgen approach in Northwest rivers should be reviewed by an independent panel of experts, he said.
Proponents of the approach counter that few academics have ever actually designed or implemented a river restoration project on the ground.
Despite resistance, California has become a center of natural channel design in the past 15 years. At least 30 California consultants work in the field, using natural channel design to restore streams in urban areas as well as coastal and mountain rivers.
Regional water quality control boards and the California Geological Survey have joined parks and transportation agencies in adopting stream restoration techniques based on the natural dynamics of rivers rather than approaches that confine rivers between rock walls.
Hydrologist Ann Riley founded the Berkeley-based Waterways Restoration Institute to help traditional water agencies make the transition from using concrete channels and levees to adopting natural channel design.
In the Rocky Mountain region, the U.S. Geological Survey is using one of Rosgen's projects, a channel reconstruction along two miles of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River in Colorado, as a demonstration project to study the long-term effectiveness of channel reconfiguration techniques.
The Colorado State University Department of Civil Engineering is monitoring the effectiveness of another Rosgen project, on the Little Snake River along the Colorado-Wyoming border. Bankrolled by a private rancher, it was designed to recreate habitat for cutthroat trout, which had been absent from the stream for many years due to the impact of heavy livestock grazing. Twenty-one miles of the river channel were restored over a nine-month period, after which cutthroat trout were introduced into the Wyoming reach.
In 2002, two years after the work was completed, the Colorado State reviewers wrote that although minor adjustments were still occurring, the channel was becoming increasingly stable.
"The restoration effort has clearly resulted in substantially more pool volume and deep-water habitat with improved potential for riparian shading, lower instream temperatures, and higher dissolved oxygen content," the reviewers wrote. New vegetation had established itself along the river banks, providing shade and cover for the trout.
So far, natural channel design has not caught on in a big way in the Pacific Northwest, though it has been applied to a few small-scale projects, including two that Jeff Rose designed, in northeastern Washington and Idaho. "I've heard this criticism that Rosgen is the cowboy from Colorado who operates equipment in the streams," Rose said. But after applying the Rosgen approach to his own projects, Rose is a believer.
"Dave has spent the time out in the field gathering the data
and analyzing it. He's the real deal."
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