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From boondoggle to boon

TRAIL — A 500-foot-long gravel berm kicked up by the 1964 flood and now cloaked with blackberries stands like a shrine to all things wrong for wild salmon in Elk Creek over the past five decades.

The berm blocks access to Elk Creek's lower floodplain that served as an important winter refuge for young coho salmon needing to escape high winter flows in this major upper Rogue River tributary. Yet with plans for it to be shrouded by 100 feet of reservoir water behind a dam and stocked with bass, there was no reason to connect this high-quality floodplain to the creek.

So the berm stayed and habitat was lost for five decades. But that's about to change.

Shaving down this berm and restoring water and fish access to the Elk Creek Valley is project No. 1 out of 41 identified for improvements along four miles of Elk Creek, beginning the final chapter in the creek's saga of going from free-flowing spawning tributary to dammed lake to free stream with a coho-friendly floodplain once again.

"What would have been warmwater fish habitat is now cold-water fish habitat that can be improved now to benefit native species instead of stocked bass," says Jay Doino, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist involved in a consortium of agencies involved in the work. 

"One big, long contiguous reach of valley floodplain is hard to come by," Doino says. "There's definitely lots of opportunity here."

It could take millions of dollars and years to pull off, but these opportunities also carry regional significance.

Elk Creek's tributary system has been identified as "high priority" habitat in the federal recovery plan to get wild coho removed from Endangered Species Act protection throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California, where it was listed as threatened in 1994.

With the creek stretch and about 3,500 acres around it still in Corps hands, wild coho recovery managers and financial supporters are eyeing Elk Creek for these habitat-improvement projects in part because it's one big chunk of public land and not held by a covey of private landowners who all would have to be wooed into cooperation.  

"For the Corps of Engineers, Elk Creek is very unique," says David Hays, the Corps' natural resources manager in the Rogue Basin. "It's not a lake. It's not a reservoir. It's just an area we're trying to restore for habitat."

The federal government wrote off nearly all of the Elk Creek basin for wild coho in 1962 when Congress authorized the Corps to build Elk Creek Dam as part of its three-dam Rogue Basin project. There was no plan for fish passage upstream of the dam less than two miles from the creek's confluence with the Rogue, with the wild coho and steelhead losses mitigated by hatchery-bred fish still released annually into the Rogue.

The Corps didn't begin building Elk Creek Dam until 1986, after Lost Creek and Applegate dams were completed. Environmental lawsuits blocked construction in 1988, while ensuing environmental studies showed the cumulative effects of Lost Creek and Elk Creek dam operations would unduly warm the main-stem Rogue and damage wild fish populations.

For 18 years, the Corps trapped wild coho and steelhead at the partially built dam's base and hauled them to upper Elk Creek habitat still suitable for spawning and rearing wild coho. The Corps even flirted with the idea of completing the dam but with a hole in it so Elk Creek could flow unimpeded other than during flood events.

Eventually, in 2008, the partially built dam was notched so Elk Creek could flow and wild juvenile and adult coho and steelhead could pass through the area without artificial impediments. As part of that notching, the stream channel immediately upstream of the old dam site was restored.

Yet throughout those decades, the remaining portion of Elk Creek that would have been underwater had the dam been built — called the "inundation zone" — went completely ignored in part because the Corps considered the entire project area a construction zone that had at least a sliver of a chance to still one day become a lake.

"Pre-notch, projects like this didn't happen," says Jim Buck, the Corps' Rogue Basin operations manager. "Once that happened, it was obvious to everybody there wasn't going to be a reservoir behind this dam.

"It became time for the Corps to take on a more visible role in habitat development," Buck says. "It just took us a couple years to ramp up to that."

The Corps, along with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the region's watershed council, in 2013 collectively sought and received a $50,000 grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to hire Hood River contractor Inter-Fluve Inc. to create a prioritized list of site restorations and select one to begin design.

That led to the identification of four large-scale riparian reconstructions, 21 log-jams and other materials to create complex stream habitat and 16 areas to reconnect the creek to the floodplain.

Teased out as the inaugural project is the berm removal and restoration, estimated to cost about $320,000. Grant applications are tapping various funding sources, anchored by an OWEB grant request scheduled to be vetted this spring. Work could begin in June.

Now, the creek stretch there flushes young salmon downstream during freshets. When the project is completed, biologists say the young coho can take refuge in the floodplain and gradually return to the creek as flows ebb without getting stranded in puddles.

"We definitely want to see this become better habitat for salmon," says April Andujar, the Corps' natural-resource specialist working on this project. "This is why I came here. To work on Elk Creek."

Collectively, the projects are ball-parked at anywhere from $5 million to $7 million and could take well over a decade, even with an ambitious schedule of three per year. 

"It's very exciting," says Brian Barr of the Rogue River Watershed Council, which has joined state and federal agencies in this restoration.

"Elk Creek historically produced a lot of fish," Barr says. "Now, fish make good use of the habitat high in the system. We want to bring that decent habitat down to them in the stretch that would have been the reservoir."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

April Andujar, resource management specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, points out a stretch of Elk Creek where the removal of a berm could help restore winter side-channels to improve wild coho habitat. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch