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A Railroaded Oregon Creek Recovers From its Past

Aug. 22, 2011 | Northwest Public Radio
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Courtney Flatt

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  • Construction workers were able to save many natural features that were slated to be removed. This "cottonwood island" saved several large trees. credit: Courtney Flatt
  • Mike Lambert is the Umatilla Basin Habitat Project Leader and Meacham Creek Project Manager. credit: Courtney Flatt
  • This arial map shows Meacham Creek's old and new channels. credit: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
Construction workers were able to save many natural features that were slated to be removed. This "cottonwood island" saved several large trees. | credit: Courtney Flatt | rollover image for more

WESTON, Ore. — Amid bulldozers and dump trucks, Meacham Creek is beginning to return home.

More than a century ago, this Umatilla River tributary ran freely across the floodplain. But in the mid 1800s an unruly, noisy neighbor moved in… The Union Pacific Railroad.

As the main east-west line, the trains couldn’t put up with Meacham Creek’s regular flooding. Up went numerous levees, and every time the creek flooded, they built a new levee to divert even more flow. Union Pacific transports about $20 million of goods alongside the creek daily, making it difficult for river projects like this to happen near rail lines.

For several years, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have worked on restoring sustainable fish populations to Meacham Creek, just outside Pendleton, Ore. They’ve moved a one-mile stretch back to its historical riverbed, after the railroad relocated the river over the past century, making it difficult for fish to thrive. Construction will wrap up in a few short weeks.

Meacham Creek project manager Mike Lambert drives down a bumpy gravel road, winding his way alongside the tracks.

Anatomy of a Creek Restoration
(Click on a pointer, and you’ll see a different part of the restoration project on Meacham Creek and hear a short explanation from project manager Mike Lambert. Click on images to enlarge.)

“I think it’s important to recognize that the tribe’s going to be there – in their case they would say time immemorial – and the railroad, they seem like they’re going to be here, too. It’s in the best interest of the tribe and the railroad to work well together in order to do what’s best,” Lambert says.

By restoring Meacham to a more natural state, tribal members hope a larger number of fish will call the river home, everything from endangered steelhead and bull trout to white fish and rainbow trout. The tribe’s Natural Resources Director Eric Quaempts says it’s mainly temperature that keeps fish harvest numbers low.

“We see temperatures that fluctuate during the course of a summer day, up to probably the low 80s,” Quaempts says. “We want to keep those temperatures mid to high 60s ideally. So it’s quite a significant effect on fish in this river.”

Quaempts says reducing temperatures in pockets of the creek – like this one-mile stretch – will decrease temperatures overall. He hopes this project will help the river function properly. And that’s what concerns Lambert, too.

The construction area looks like flattened dirt surrounded by large cottonwood trees. Lambert says it may be hard to tell now, but the project is one of the most complicated in the Pacific Northwest this year.

“This project alone has 10 times the amount of habitat developed into this project mile. There’s around 120 actual fish habitat features,” Lambert says.

That’s everything from boulders to islands of cottonwood trees to vegetation along the creek bed. After construction ends, workers will fill in areas with 43,000 native plants and grass seed, all grown on the reservation.

Restoration will cost about $3.5 million. Much of the funding comes from Bonneville Power Administration through the Columbia Basin Fish Accords. Bonneville officials say money from ratepayers finances hundreds of restorations projects… dozens like this one.

The creek winds along at its lowest flow of the year. But Lambert says the real test will be this winter, as banks swell.

“Only time will tell on how successful the project is,” Lambert says.

He says the project will require maintenance for at least the next five years.

“You learn really fast that nature’s in control,” he says. “We’re trying to adapt our expertise and our practice to what nature does. Lots of times we get it wrong. We just try to be good stewards of the resource.”

Now, Meacham Creek is considered a sanctuary, no salmon fishing allowed. But once fish habitat and populations are restored, the tribe hopes to use traditional fishing methods to harvest food and sustain cultural practices.

© 2011 Northwest Public Radio
Meacham Creek salmon fish restoration
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