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Water works: Remnant of ‘97 flood removed from Little Butte Creek

By Mark Freeman

Mail Tribune

EAGLE POINT — Lower Butte Creek is in the midst of shedding a 21-year-long hangover from the 1997 flood by getting back on track for cleaner and more fish-friendly water that will help thirsty Medford residents as well.

Restoration crews are in the midst of a quarter-million-dollar effort on a one-third mile stretch of the creek to redirect the creek toward its pre-flood meander as it gurgles toward the Rogue River through city of Eagle Point property west of Highway 62.

A series of four engineered log jams and rocks added to the stream this week will allow the creek to fan into its original channel, robbing it of its energy and creating slower, less turbid waters for wild salmon and Medford’s municipal water system on the Rogue.

“We’re creating more space for the water to go outward instead of straight down,” said Alexis Larsen, restoration program manager for the Rogue River Watershed Council, which is the lead in the project.

“It’s going to reduce sediment impact and improve water-quality,” Larsen said as contract restoration crews bolted large fir logs and root-wads into a cut bank. “This is a fun day.”

Lower Little Butte has been anything but fun for its denizens since the New Year’s Day flood of 1997 tore through its banks and set the creek on a collision course with nearby Antelope Creek.

Since then, the creek has cut a tight dog-leg right on the property and has systematically scoured a large cut bank, with barely 100 yards of ground remaining to keep Little Butte from flowing into lower Antelope Creek.

If that occurred, the water would overtax Antelope Creek with dirty water and overwhelm culverts under roads, Larsen said.

As Little Butte Creek continues to eat away at that bank, the extra sediment further dirties a stream already over acceptable sediment loads. That creates poor habitat for threatened wild coho salmon in the creek, which is considered a key cog in restoring wild coho habitat in the upper Rogue River Basin.

Little Butte Creek flows into the Rogue less than a mile upstream of the intake where the city of Medford draws Rogue water in summer for municipal use.

The main log structures not only slow flows and protect the bank but also create complex habitat for wild juvenile coho that have to slug it out through an entire winter here before heading to sea as smolts.

Most of the logs will be covered in dirt and later replanted with native vegetation.

Ashland engineer Joey Howard, who designed the project, said the buried and bolted logs likely would withstand another ‘97 flood should one arise, and they also give newly planted vegetation a chance to sink roots deep into the rebuilt bank.

“That’s really what we’re counting on,” said Howard, a veteran of many restoration projects on both sides of the Oregon/California border.

Another 10 smaller log jams will be installed later this week on an 800-foot-long seasonal side channel at the property that will be restored to flow year-round, Larsen said. That would create more off-channel refuge for wild coho trying to escape high, dirty and gnarly winter freshets.

The project includes more than 70 large trees, mostly Douglas fir, Howard said. More than half of them came from the Bureau of Land Management from horse logging of blow-down timber earlier this year at the Howard Prairie Resort campground.

The $255,000 project was funded primarily by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and joined with a grant from a partnership of local and federal agencies that provide drinking water in the region. In-kind donations also come from the city of Eagle Point, the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Medford Water Commission.

Both OWEB and the drinking water partnership in late 2016 helped fund the $70,000 study and design work done last year, Larsen said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneRestoration crews work to redirect Little Butte Creek toward its pre-flood meander through the city of Eagle Point west of Highway 62 on Tuesday.