Model watershed projects restore headwater streams in hopes of improving conditions throughout the Willamette Basin

Tisa Wecht lives on a tidy 52-acre farm on Shotpouch Creek, a rural haven tucked away in a sweet stretch of valley bottom outside the tiny Lincoln County community of Burnt Woods.

She calls the property, located in the Coast Range about 20 miles west of Corvallis, “a little piece of heaven.” And she is fiercely protective of her domain.

So when some conservationists called a meeting of area landowners at the Burnt Woods Store to pitch their plans for a big stream restoration project, she was immediately suspicious.

“I was very, very skeptical and I thought there was a hidden agenda,” Wecht said. “I thought, ‘Something’s not right — they’re going to get their foot in the door, and I’m going to lose rights.’”

That was early 2010. Today, under the direction of the Marys River Watershed Council, a 10-year, $755,000 restoration effort is well under way on a 6-mile stretch of Shotpouch Creek dotted with small farms and private timber tracts.

It’s one of 15 major stream recovery projects being carried out under the banner of the Willamette Model Watershed Program, a long-term undertaking led by the Meyer Memorial Trust and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board that is pouring money into key river systems throughout the upper Willamette River Basin.

Designed to work in tandem with other restoration efforts along the Willamette mainstem, the program aims to improve water quality, lower stream temperatures and enhance habitat for fish and wildlife in these important tributary networks.

From there, the theory goes, the benefits of all this work will flow downstream into the Willamette itself, boosting the health of the state’s most iconic river in a multitude of ways that will pay dividends for many years to come.

“So it’s not just about Shotpouch,” said Karen Fleck Harding, the landowner partnership coordinator for the watershed council. “It’s about how Shotpouch contributes to the larger watershed.”

Meet the neighbors

Setting all these trickle-down effects in motion begins with individual projects on individual streams, most often on private land. And that means securing the cooperation of individual property owners, many of them deeply distrustful of outsiders telling them what to do.

Before any work could begin on Shotpouch Creek, for example, organizers with the watershed council had to win over the owners.

The key, Harding said, is to build relationships, listen to property owners’ concerns and find restoration projects that make sense for their land.

After that first meeting at the Burnt Woods Store, Harding and Steve Trask, a biologist who surveys fish populations and designs restoration projects for watershed councils around the state, spent months approaching individual owners for face-to-face conversations.

“We talked about what their interests were, then came up with a package of projects,” Harding said. “That’s generally how Steve and I like to approach it: How do we make it a win-win? How do we help the landowner manage their land and help the creek at the same time?”

Eventually, 18 of the 21 property owners in the Shotpouch Creek drainage were brought into the fold.

That includes Wecht, who agreed to allow a variety of restoration activities on her land, from livestock fencing and bank stabilization to streamside tree planting and the placement of a “large woody debris structure” — a manmade logjam designed to slow the flash floods that used to tear through her pasture each winter while creating a quiet pool where native cutthroat trout can rest and spawn.

She even signed a contract agreeing to maintain some of the work herself.

“This still kind of freaks me out — it just looks like Pick Up Stix,” Wecht said, pointing out a big pile of interlocking logs in a bend of the stream. “But this should really build up the gravels. It should be excellent for spawning beds.”

Now, despite her initial skepticism, she’s become a passionate evangelist for the project, even helping to persuade some of the holdouts over coffee at the local cafe.

“They showed me how to fix some of the problems on the place and allow us to become the caretakers that we all want to be,” Wecht said.

“What’s really cool is that my next-door neighbors and their next-door neighbors have all bought into it, so there’s going to be a nice long stretch of restoration.”

Securing a stronghold

Shotpouch Creek has its origins on the western shoulder of Marys Peak, the high point of the Oregon Coast Range. It tumbles and glides down the mountain’s forested flanks, flowing generally north until it empties into the Tumtum River near Blodgett, a few miles below Tisa Wecht’s spread.

The watershed council initially came to the area intending to do restoration work on the Tumtum, a major Marys River tributary.

But a snorkel survey in the summer of 2009 found only small, scattered populations of cutthroat trout — the water was so warm that most of the fish had fled upstream, taking refuge in cooler tributaries.

The council uses cutthroat trout as an indicator species, Harding explained: “If the cutthroat are doing well, then the stream is doing well, both for the biota and human use.”

A survey of Tumtum tributaries found relatively low numbers of trout in the lower stretch of Shotpouch Creek, as well — but the upper reaches had the highest cutthroat densities yet documented in the Marys River Basin. The stream also harbored Pacific lamprey, brook lamprey and steelhead, Harding said.

“We realized Shotpouch Creek had huge potential.”

One of the aims of the Model Watershed Program is to focus on protecting the best remaining habitat in the Willamette Basin, and upper Shotpouch Creek is a fish stronghold. Decades of human habitation have taken their toll, but the council saw lots of opportunities for repair.

Much of the work has focused on protecting the stream from livestock damage. The valley bottom, once the site of a large dairy operation, still harbors significant numbers of cattle and other animals on small farms and ranches.

So far, more than 21,000 feet of fence has been strung to keep animals from churning up the streambed and browsing out native vegetation. Nine crossing sites have been hardened with gravel to keep fords from becoming mudholes, and several off-channel watering tanks have been installed.

Poorly sited or inadequate culverts have been replaced at half a dozen chokepoints, easing fish passage between the main channel and secondary tributaries that beckon trout with cold, clear water and fine spawning gravels.

Large wood placements have been completed at 27 sites to restore some of the channel complexity that has been lost over the years. The big logs help capture spawning gravels, scour out deep pools and slow the current at peak flow levels so it can spread out and reconnect the creek with its historic floodplain.

Thousands of trees — willow, maple, alder, Western red cedar and Douglas fir — have been planted in deforested areas to shade the stream and provide wildlife habitat.

As they mature, these riparian plantings will also provide a natural source of replacement material for the artificial logjams installed during the restoration project.

The council is also working with the landowners to protect and expand the local beaver population, which has created a number of large ponds that provide highly productive rearing habitat for juvenile trout.

Trask, who did the survey of fish numbers in the creek, calls a string of beaver flats on the upper Shotpouch “the heartbeat of this whole system.” He calculates the ponds hold about 40 percent of all the creek’s cutthroat.

“If there was a beaver recovery, I’d be out of a job,” Trask said. “There’d be no need for restoration.”

All of these projects, as well as follow-up and monitoring work scheduled to play out over a 10-year horizon, should have long-lasting benefits not only for Shotpouch Creek, but also for the larger waterways it feeds.

Cooler water in the tribs means cooler water downstream, and healthy fish populations in the headwaters can help restock the lower reaches.

“Our river systems are all interconnected,” said Adrian McCarthy of the Freshwater Trust, which is providing more than $31,000 in funding to the Shotpouch project.

“If we can massively improve habitat in a single tributary, the benefits will flow all the way to the mainstem Willamette.”

Seeing the big picture

Stream restoration projects are going on all the time throughout Oregon, a green-minded state with a high level of volunteer participation in conservation programs.

What makes projects like the one at Shotpouch Creek unusual is that it’s part of a highly focused, highly coordinated effort across the entire 11,000-square-mile Willamette Basin.

Launched by the Meyer Memorial Trust in 2009, the Willamette Model Watershed Program is a 10-year initiative that aims to quicken the pace, expand the scope and increase the effectiveness of stream restoration efforts throughout the basin.

It’s part of an even larger undertaking called the Willamette River Initiative, launched by the Meyer Trust in 2007, when the Portland-based nonprofit teamed up with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board in a long-term effort to enhance the overall health of the state’s most important waterway.

Both have already spent millions of dollars on the ambitious enterprise and have committed to spending millions more in years to come. That money is used to leverage additional funding from a variety of other grantors.

Last year, for instance, the Meyer Trust and OWEB contributed about $2.4 million to the Model Watershed Program. The Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which manages the program, kicked in another $73,000. And the seven local watershed councils carrying out restoration projects in the program brought in an additional $414,000 from other sources.

The model watershed approach was pioneered by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit entity supported by the Bonneville Power Administration, in 2003. Frustrated by the lackluster results of “shotgun-style” funding of scattered individual projects, the BEF came up with a new vision.

The approach involves coordinating multiple projects within a single river basin over a 10-year time frame. In addition to funding, BEF provides professional management services, technical assistance and group purchasing of supplies ranging from computers to bare-root trees.

“It’s a very nontraditional grantor-grantee relationship,” said Todd Reeve, vice president of watershed programs for the foundation. “We’re really the behind-the-scenes partner trying to manage all aspects of the work and make the process as efficient as possible.”

Impressed by that long-term, coordinated approach, the Meyer Memorial Trust contracted the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to run a similar program in the Willamette Basin.

Pam Wiley, who oversees the restoration initiative for the Meyer Trust, said she knows the program’s goals are ambitious. But she also knows the work is important. By making a sustained effort to improve key tributaries throughout the basin, Wiley believes, the Willamette Model Watershed Program has a real chance to achieve lasting improvements.

“You might be able to see significant restoration in 10 years,” Wiley said. “You might not see salmon spawning in these streams, but you could set the table.”

There may be other advantages that come with the program’s long-range approach, as well. One example, according to the Marys River Watershed Council’s Harding, is the sense of a common goal that comes from working with property owners for a decade on a stream restoration project.

“In the end, the neighborhood has some ownership of it,” Harding said.

And that, added Trask, is a solid foundation for lasting change.

“The outreach has been done to all the landowners in the basin to bring them to the table,” he said.

“It’s easy to go out and fix a culvert here and there. It’s a lot harder to bring a neighborhood together.”

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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