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From Forest to Faucet: Upper Rickreall Creek Watershed Enhancement

rickreal helicoptor It’s September in western Oregon and a helicopter whirrs overhead. A 32” diameter Douglas-Fir log is tethered from the helicopter’s underside with a heavy cable. On the ground below, a crew of workers are directing the swinging log’s placement into Rickreall Creek. But why all the effort to bring in helicopters to drop logs into a creek? Bounded on both sides by private and federal timber lands, this section of Rickreall Creek is part of a much bigger effort to improve water quality and recover the health and productivity of the entire Rickreall watershed.

Rickreall Creek originates on the forested, eastern slopes of Oregon’s Coast Range and eventually winds its way through fertile valley bottomlands to meet the Willamette River just west of Salem. Over the past century this creek has undergone tremendous changes. With ample water flows, loggers in the early 20th century discovered they could transport logs from the productive wooded hillsides downstream to the towns of Dallas and Rickreall for milling without the need for splash dams. These activities were a boon to the local economy but log drives caused the stream channel to cut down, scouring it to bedrock in many places, and removed much of the existing large wood that naturally accumulates in rivers and provides benefits such as collecting gravel that filters water and provides fish habitat.

“When I stand in the creek in areas that are bedrock flats today and look up at nearby steep, often rocky, walls, I wonder if, in the absence of the log drives, I might be under 15 feet of gravel and buried large wood that would last centuries.” – Lucas Hunt, Polk Soil & Water Conservation District

Although it’s been a long time since logs were sent down the river, a pattern was set; after each rain storm, water rushes headlong down the incised channel, carrying away gravels and fine sediment, and further disconnecting the stream from its historic floodplain. When the Rockhouse Fire swept through the upper part of Rickreall drainage in 1987, it found a less resilient river system. Most of the old growth trees near the river were lost which meant there would be no large trees available for 30-40 years to naturally fall into the stream; assuring there would be a lack of the in-stream habitat needed to support diverse aquatic life and slow down flood waters.

During this time, the Rickreall’s workhorse stream flows have also sustained the nearby City of Dallas. Looking for a source of drinking water for its growing community, Dallas started tapping tributaries in the Rickreall in the late 19th century. In 1959 the city built Mercer Reservoir in the upper basin to protect and enhance their only water source. While the Rickreall has been a reliable source for drinking water through the years, the creek is often clouded with sediment by the time it reaches the reservoir, creating water treatment challenges and added expenditures for Dallas. Runoff also threatens to fill the reservoir with sediment, shortening its useful storage life.

By 2000, it was clear that if residents, ratepayers, and landowners wanted to ensure reliable drinking water supplies and good fish habitat, Rickreall Creek would need a new type of human intervention – to help repair and re-establish the stream’s original natural characteristics and watershed processes.

Collaborative Efforts Key to Renewing Natural Processes

rickreal treesLocal groups and individuals began cooperating on shared goals and restoration projects that would replace large wood in-stream, plant native riparian trees and shrubs, and reconnect the stream with its historic floodplain. The vision for upper Rickreall Creek is to help it again wander laterally, creating what stream ecologists call a, “shifting habitat mosaic.” Pulses of sediment, nutrients, gravels, wood, and water will vary through time and over the landscape, creating and reshaping log jams, side channels, and other dynamic structures that nurture biodiversity. Log jams, especially large ones, serve to reset natural ecological processes by slowing down flood waters, recharging the groundwater and allowing fine sediments to settle out.

A confluence of factors lined up in order for the current Upper Rickreall Habitat Enhancement project to become a reality. To date, there have been several phases of restoration work. A 2013 project where the South Fork Rickreall Creek joins the main stem provided even more evidence and inspiration. That project utilized a large wood installation to successfully slow water flow, trap sediments and gravel for improved salmon spawning, and reduce summer water temperatures.

As word spread, local interest in, and support for, enhancing habitat in Rickreall Creek grew. Landowners and individuals around the watershed were willing to jump in and help.
Another restoration phase started when trees were felled in 2014 by the BLM in anticipation of more restoration actions moving forward – but once cut they only have 3-5 years before they are no longer useable.

They could proceed with securing the necessary permits but there was one major hurdle left: efficiently and safely moving the wood. Although some log placement projects can exclusively use ground equipment like excavators, this one required moving logs in sensitive areas that lack road access. A helicopter was needed, at a cost of almost $190,000. The project team had compiled a mix of funds, including over $72,000 from the BLM which was set to expire in 2017 if not utilized. Time was of the essence.

In December 2015, Lucas Hunt with the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District heard of a funding opportunity by the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. The call for proposals was for projects just like this: one that uses watershed restoration strategies to meet drinking water and fish needs. He and his colleagues at the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District put together an application and hoped for the best.

Drinking Water Providers Partnership Supports Rickreall Creek Restoration

In March 2016, Lucas and his colleagues heard the good news. The Partnership selected their proposal funding. Without missing a beat the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District, Hancock Forest Management, Rickreall Watershed Council, and the Bureau of Land Management jumped into action. It almost felt like fate to have a chance to raise the remaining funds just in time to secure the helicopter.

rickreal creekIn late August the first helicopter arrived for one day but the competing demands of fire season meant that work could only proceed when the helicopters were freed from the unpredictable schedule of putting out wildfires. Project staff had to be ready to respond, often on short notice, and put in very long days whenever a helicopter was available. Yet over the course of the next month, 30 hours of helicopter time were registered and by the end of September, upper Rickreall Creek had gained 522 new logs and 34 new in-stream structures. It was a massive feat of coordination and cooperation, much celebrated by the project partners and the community. The felled trees, now placed in and across the stream, will improve sediment retention, reducing the need for dredging in the reservoir. The work also improves water quality and retention of water upstream of the reservoir, which means enhanced water supply in late spring and early summer. Benefits from this work will accrue over the years and flow downstream.

But it’s only the beginning. The Upper Rickreall Habitat Enhancement project includes several ongoing monitoring and data gathering components as well as placement of 150 more logs in two other locations above the reservoir. These are designed to ensure the project is successful at meeting its goals, but perhaps even more importantly, are meant to provide critical lessons learned so that future projects designed to help drinking water and fish – in this watershed and elsewhere – avoid missteps and build upon what works.

Interested in this type of project for your community? Visit the Drinking Water Providers Partnership page to learn more and apply for funding.

Photos courtesy of Polk Soil & Water Conservation District, BLM, and Hancock Forest Management

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