Fixing roads for fish and people in the Umpqua

Guest Author, Marlies Wierenga, WildEarth Guardians

Almost in the center of Douglas County Oregon sits a town of nearly 2,000 people called Glide. A unique phenomenon occurs in Glide and nowhere else in the world – two rivers collide head-to-head into each other. The Little River flows up from the south and the Umpqua River, flowing from the east, takes a sharp bend and meets the Little River at almost a straight angle. Swirling eddies and rapids in the crystal blue waters are mesmerizing.

colliding rivers LittleMountain5
Photo by Little Mountain 5

But we are not here to (only) watch two rivers collide. Cathy, from the Geos Institute, and myself, from WildEarth Guardians, came to learn how the Umpqua National Forest is working to keep the river clean and clear. More than half of the residents of Glide depend on drinking water drawn from the Umpqua River. Investing in measures that keep water clean at the source is a common sense strategy for keeping water treatment costs down and protecting public health. Though the upstream forested lands with towering Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock seem like great water protectors, it is the thousands of miles of roads criss-crossing the forest that can cause the greatest risk to Glide’s drinking water.

The Umpqua National Forest attempts to maintain 4,706 miles of old roads on a budget of under $800,000 per year, which is less than 20% of what is needed. As roads are neglected, the chance of a culvert plugging and tons of road fill washing downstream increases dramatically. When a culvert fails, it sends a burst of sediment rushing into the stream. The amount of sediment or suspended materials in the water is known as turbidity and over this past winter, the town had to shut down the water treatment plant 5 times because the turbidity was so high it clogged up the treatment plant water filters.

glide landslide glide treatment
Photos courtesy of Glide Water Association and the Umpqua National Forest, USFS 

As members of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, Cathy and I were also here to see how grant monies are used. The Partnership has two main goals:

  1. Restore and protect the health of watersheds, which communities depend upon for drinking water while also benefiting aquatic and riparian ecosystems, including the native fish that inhabit them.
  2. Support local partnerships between drinking water providers, landowners, and restoration practitioners.

The Umpqua National Forest was awarded grants in both 2016 and 2017. Glide’s Source Water Assessment rated road building, maintenance and road use as increasing the risk for turbidity in drinking water due to increased erosion and slope failure. Glide and the Umpqua National Forest are working together to reduce these risks to drinking water and improve fish habitat.

Cathy and I met Mark and Joe from the Forest Service at their offices in town, within sight of the North Umpqua, and proceeded to head upriver. After driving for many miles, Mark parked the vehicle at the end of a road facing a rusted, flattened culvert. We stepped out to see last year’s work in the Fox Creek drainage of the North Umpqua River. On just under 2 miles of road, 8 cross-drains were removed, 4 stream-crossings were restored and risky road-fill was pulled back. Native seed and slash were used to control erosion where soil was exposed. At first glance, I admit it was not a pretty sight but a closer look showed native grasses sprouting and ferns filling in. As we clambered down to the first stream-crossing, we learned that one crossing had 2,900 cubic yards of fill perched on top of an old culvert. That’s about 200 dump trucks full of soil and clay! By removing the culvert, re-aligning the slopes, and reconnecting the stream, the risk of all of that sediment flushing down to Glide’s drinking water intake was virtually nil.

north upqua culvert removal
Photo by Cathy Kellon, Geos Institute

It’s not only drinking water that is better protected with this type of work. Fish benefit as well. When a road washes out, that material clogs spawning gravels. The Umpqua River is a beloved fishing destination and home to coho, Chinook and steelhead. Thirty-three miles of the North Umpqua River is fly-fishing only territory and is considered one of the most beautiful and difficult places to catch steelhead. Keeping the river waters clean and clear for fish and fishing is also a goal of the Forest Service.

With limited funding to fix the thousands of miles of road wending through the Forest, Mark knows that they have to prioritize their efforts. Later this summer field crews will be using a combination of GIS analysis and field surveying, following a tested protocol called Geomorphic Roads Analysis and Inventory Package (GRAIP), to look at 250 miles of roads in the Steamboat Creek subbasin so as to pinpoint the locations that pose the greatest risk to water quality. In other places where GRAIP has been used, the assessments showed that 90% of sediment came from just 10% of roads, road segments or road/stream crossings.

GRAIP will allow Mark and Joe to identify the areas with the highest potential for erosion and road failure which gives them the information they need to prioritize road segment treatments, whether that’s better road maintenance, storm-proofing, culvert removals or upgrades, road decommissioning or road storage. Focusing on the real problem spots is a common sense and cost-effective way to ensure erosion risks are truly reduced for fish, the Glide Water Association, and everyone who lives and recreates in this beautiful place.

As the tour ended near one of the many rapids on the Umpqua River, we thanked our hosts. I couldn’t bear leaving the area so soon, so I set-up my tent next to the river and enjoyed a few more hours being mesmerized by beautiful waters.

north umpqua river BobWickBLM
North Umpqua river near Steamboat Inn. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM



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