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A bump in the Rogue

Rechanneling aims to point river back in its natural direction

Excavators, dirt scrapers and rock piles now are helping nature heal a stretch of the upper Rogue River left pock-marked with old gravel pits and pummeled by the 1997 flood.

This reach of the Rogue in the shadows of Lower Table Rock is in the final phase of a three-year, &

36;1.3 million rechanneling project that organizers say is meant to push the Rogue back into its proper place.

Flood waters six years ago punched through a berm and sent the Rogue running instead through a large, flooded gravel pit that once was used to build the Rogue Valley's roadways, but was dug too close to the river, geologists say.

— This month, excavators are fortifying remaining berms, placing jetty-like rock bars in the stream and even scraping a path through the old river channel in hopes eventually to re-align the river into its pre-flood path.

Basically, we're telling the river that you've gone far enough in this direction, says Bill Leavens of Rogue Aggregate Inc., which is part of a consortium of businesses, groups and government agencies spearheading the project. We're saying that we need to bump you back to the other direction.

Otherwise, Leavens says, Bear Creek Orchards will become riverfront property.

The stakes are high ' for people and fish.

If left unchecked, geologists say future winter storms will punch into at least two other old gravel pits, including a 60-foot-deep pit, before popping out farther downstream.

The river would never come out of there, says state geologist E. Frank Schnitzer as he stands along an exposed gravel bar. Then, all this would be dry.

The dried-out stretch includes prime fall chinook spawning gravel as well as key side-channels used by infant wild steelhead and wild coho salmon.

It's a fairly complex habitat for the Rogue River, says David Haight, a fisheries biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of a handful of state agencies helping in the project. You'd lose a lot of developed side-channels if the river got captured in those (gravel) pits.

Watershed watchdogs agree. Everyone from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to the state Department of Transportation to the Rogue River Guides and Rogue Flyfishers associations have put money or sweat into the project.

Rivers like the Rogue are highly dynamic, often changing courses, creating new islands and filling new channels. In most instances, governmental agencies and river watchers prefer to leave the changing Rogue alone ' as long as it remains in its general plain.

Project organizers say the features and future of this reach of river are so unique that nature can't mend itself here alone.

We have so many unnatural features on this flood plain, like 60-foot-deep pits, says Schnitzer, who is the project manager through the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. Doing nothing is a potential disaster.

This portion of the river runs deep in Medford's development.

As far back as the 1960s, county, state and private interests mined aggregate together in deep pits so close to each other and the river that they never would be allowed by current reclamation law, Schnitzer says.

The pits, including one owned by ODOT, provided the gravel for paving Interstate 5's Siskiyou Summit, as well as countless other area projects.

With the mining long done, the pits filled with water and provided quiet wetland habitat.

Then a December 1996 flood punctured the berm, sending the Rogue gushing into the pond and away from the normal channel through a popular fishing hole called Salmon Rock. Water also breached a downstream berm and flowed back into the main channel below Salmon Rock.

A week later, the New Year's flood of 1997 eroded the entire 250-foot berm, sending half the Rogue flows through the pond and the rest on its regular path.

At first, reclamationists weren't sure the rerouted Rogue was a problem. But as water scooted gravel around until the entire Rogue flowed through the breached pond, people like Leavens foresaw more trouble.

Now, one pit that was once a quarter-mile away from the Rogue has just a 75-foot berm as a buffer. Future storms, the group envisioned, would collapse all the ponds like dominoes.

It was clear, Leavens says, that the river would collapse those ponds like dominoes.

A lot of people may be critical and say that none of this should have happened in the first place, Leavens says. But we couldn't go there.

They instead went to the drawing board, designing a series of berm stabilization, tree plantings, and rock bars placed in the river to direct currents. But some of the big work ' using excavators to move 16,000 cubic yards of gravel and 13,000 cubic yards of dirt toward higher ground ' initially alarmed some skeptics.

At first, I wondered why there had to be so much hard engineering, says Paul Kay, an environmental consultant and past chair of the Bear Creek Watershed Council, which is one of the project's backers. Then I read all of (the proposal) and had more understanding of the natural hydrology and risk of catastrophic failure.

It is a brilliant combination of hard engineering and natural or biological engineering, Kay says.

Ironically, the plan's ultimate success hinges upon whether engineers can harness the same hydropower that triggered their dilemma in the first place.

The work does not instantly reroute the Rogue down its original path. It simply steers future winter storm toward beneficial changes in the river ' pushing gravel into the old pits and, eventually, winding itself into its old channel past Salmon Rock.

Schnitzer believes that will happen. The question is when.

It all depends upon the magnitude of the winter storms, Schnitzer says. That's what really gets the rocks rolling.

A truck dumps rock to fortify a berm along the Rogue River downstream from the mouth of Bear Creek in an effort to reroute the channel to its pre-1997 flood path. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven