Restoring the Source

How creating Freeways for Fish led to Working Waters

By Tonya Graham

Marking success in southern Oregon

fff celebrationEarlier this month, Geos Institute threw a party to celebrate the reopening of over 1,200 miles of native fish habitat in the Rogue River basin. The March 11th event marked the close of our 13+ year Freeways for Fish Initiative and publicly launched our new Working Waters Initiative.

Fourteen years ago, native fish had a really hard time accessing some of the best habitat in the Rogue River because of various obstacles – dams on the main stem and irrigation diversion dams on many of the tributaries made it very difficult for native fish to find good spawning and rearing habitat and to get to cool water when river levels were low.

partnerships bb damBrian Barr and Dominick DellaSala hatched the idea of a campaign to open access to high quality habitat across the Rogue basin for native fish by removing the dams and repairing fish ladders that were making it difficult or impossible for fish to pass. They completed a science assessment to identify the top priority barriers to remove, set the goal at reopening 1,200 miles of habitat for native fish, and Brian Barr set out to get the projects done.

Now, over a dozen years later and with the removal of two dams last summer, we have surpassed our goal by creating access for fish to 1,299 river miles in the Rogue River system! And, the two dams that capped off this campaign last year on Evans Creek were both listed on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s top ten fish passage barriers for the entire state.

People make it possible

All of this work was possible because of the support we have received from many different individuals, foundations, and government agencies. And there would have been no celebration without one person, in particular, a man named Ben. Ten years ago, after he had been contributing to the program for a couple of years, we approached Ben with a big request. We asked him to make a significant 10 year pledge to underwrite the program. We thought it would take us about ten years to complete the campaign and we knew that many of these projects were 3 or 4 years in the making. That timeline is hard for many foundations and government agencies to manage.

We needed a pledge to anchor the program so that we knew we would have some amount of resources several years out. And Ben agreed to provide it. With that anchor, we were confident that our other supporters would fill in the gap and they did. That anchor pledge allowed us to make multi-year commitments, and when combined with the other contributions and grants, we were able to leverage Ben’s gift creating over $5 million dollars of restoration – leveraging his investment by 11 times.

All of these accomplishments for fish and residents, can be traced back to Brian Barr and his absolute commitment to the health of the Rogue River and its tributaries. He is a self-proclaimed “muddy boots” kind of guy – someone who is always the most comfortable when his feet and his fishing pole are in the river.


As we were preparing for last year’s in-stream construction season, Brian was offered the position of Executive Director of the Rogue River Watershed Council. Four existing watershed councils were being merged here in the valley and they wanted Brian to lead the way. It was one of those heart stopping moments when he told me because I realized that not only was this exactly the work he should move forward with after meeting the Freeways for Fish goal, but that it also meant that he would no longer be part of our team. Brian is a big reason we held this celebration. He’s an incredible person, friend, and a dedicated defender of native fishes. All of us and the fish of the Rogue River are lucky to have him in our corner of the world.

The party was also a chance to formally introduce our new Working Waters Initiative and share how we are expanding the reach of our restoration work throughout the Pacific Northwest. This initiative was born of two realizations over the last several years.

Little Butte Creek Restored Channel introThe first was that while we were doing this restoration work for fish, some of it was having a positive impact on drinking water. In our Little Butte Creek project, we worked with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to put a very large meander back into a section of creek that had been channelized decades earlier. When the project was done, we realized that not only did it create fish habitat, but it also had other positive benefits.

By allowing floodwaters to once again spread across the floodplain we were helping slow down the water. The sediment was dropping out making the flow less muddy. And that slower moving water does a better job of recharging aquifers. So this work done for fish was doing double duty, but no one was measuring the impact to water quality and what that meant for the water treatment facility downstream.

The second realization was that changing climate conditions are already having an enormous impact on freshwater, especially here in the West where we depend heavily on snowmelt. In our ClimateWise program when we brought these climate projections to communities and would instantly identify water quality and supply as one of their top concerns. Usually it was number one.

But when water managers went to their toolbox to deal with this issue, all that was waiting for them was concrete, steel and chemicals. We had just spent a decade taking dams out only to watch communities respond to the threat of climate change by suggesting we start building new dams. We needed to put restoration in to their toolbox as a way of dealing with water quality and supply issues.

So, two years ago, we began a partnership with the Forest Service and several communities in Oregon to develop restoration projects specifically to improve water quality and supplies for people. We knew that restoration helps communities – we have seen it firsthand – but we also knew that if these techniques were going to become actual tools for water managers, someone had to start measuring their impact. We decided that that someone was going to be us. Brian initiated the program with the Forest Service, and last year we hired Cathy Kellon to run this new effort.

Restoring the source around the Pacific Northwest

In the past year, a few more people have joined us in what we’re now calling the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. In addition to the original partners – Geos Institute and Region 6 of the USFS - we also have Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Region 10 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the OR/WA office of BLM, WildEarth Guardians, and Washington Department of Health at the table.

dwpp logosWe are collaborating to restore and protect the ecosystems that native fish depend upon as well as those we rely upon for our drinking water. And we’re doing this in an innovative way: coordinating an annual grant award process that is designed to build working partnerships between drinking water providers, landowners, and restoration practitioners.

In November 2015 we released our very first Request for Proposals. By the time the RFP closed in December, we had received 20 applications for watershed enhancement projects around Oregon and Washington, totaling nearly $800,000 in requested funding. Proposed projects included everything from culvert replacements to floodplain reconnection to improving shade along streams. Of these, 12 projects have been recommended for funding and one of these will bring us back to working in the Rogue’s Little Butte Creek.

home grid stack source waterIn addition to the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, we are working to build the business case for restoration and healthy watersheds so that water managers have the information they need to compare the performance and costs of green versus gray infrastructure. For example, where a town is concerned about the loss of mountain snowpack and its own water security, people’s thoughts immediately go to artificial water impoundment, like dams and reservoirs. However, what if water managers, instead, avoided that kind of capital investment in a storage project by putting beaver back in headwater streams? We know this kind of restoration creates a multitude of benefits but would those thousands of small ponds that beavers create also be enough to keep the water flowing instream through late summer and droughts?

We don’t have answers to those kinds of questions - yet! - but they are the sorts of things we’re looking to make sense of. It should be easier for communities, ratepayers, and water managers to turn to nature whenever possible. And additional information on effectiveness, costs and benefits is key to success so that it’s possible to compare, say, pouring concrete for a new dam to relocating beavers from where they’re considered a nuisance on private lands back up to headwater streams.

Fortunately, thanks to the past 13+ years of accomplishments in the Rogue River, we’ve got a solid foundation upon which to continue building healthier watersheds and put restoration into the toolboxes of water managers across the region.


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