UNWC Recaps Productive Year

Upper Nehalem Watershed Council completes numerous restoration projects in 2018

By Scott Laird

The Upper Nehalem Watershed Council (UNWC) has been an instrumental piece in the regional efforts to protect the health of the Nehalem River watershed.

The Nehalem watershed, from its headwaters on the east side of the Oregon Coast Range, through Vernonia, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean, has been seen as a high priority river basin for restoring habitat as part of the effort to protect and re-establish coho salmon in their native streams in the Pacific Northwest. The UNWC has been instrumental in developing and managing projects as part of those recovery efforts, including the replacement of culverts that act as barriers to migrating fish, working with private landowners to plant trees and restore natural settings along stream banks, and placing large trees, with rootwads attached, in streams to create natural habitat for coho and other native species.

Vernonia’s Voice recently sat down with UNWC Executive Director Maggie Peyton to review the work of the UNWC, now in its 22nd year of operation. Peyton discussed projects that have been completed during the last year, talked about current issues and ongoing concerns about the health and water quality in the region, and looked ahead to this upcoming summer season and the Council’s plans.

“The habitat in the Nehalem watershed has not been totally degraded and is seen as having a lot of potential,” says Peyton. “We’re getting to the point where we’re starting to connect some of the dots. We’ve been doing projects all around the region for twenty plus years, but now we’re able to do some sub-basin treatments that address multiple factors in an area with road crossings and enhanced habitat.”

According to Peyton, 2018 was “very productive” for the UNWC, its Board of Directors, and its numerous partners, with successful projects across a wide spectrum of watershed health and native salmon recovery activities. Nearly $1.3 million in grant funds have been disbursed since 2017 to successfully implement ecosystem infrastructure improvement projects in Columbia, Clatsop, Tillamook, and Washington counties.

“This was our best year for high profile restoration projects,” said Peyton. “We did a large culvert replacement project on Apiary Road, a pilot project helping create beaver dams, and we placed a lot of large woody debris structures in streams. We also got quite a bit of recognition for some of our work.”

The original UNWC Charter was recognized by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners in July 1996 and by the Clatsop County Local Government Group in August 1997. Since that time UNWC has continued to educate local communities while helping address watershed management issues in coordination and cooperation with key regional stakeholders composed of government agencies, environmental protection groups, local contractors, and private landowners – including the timber industry. The end goal continues to be a balanced ecosystem that supports a healthy watershed while providing for an economic base and viable communities.

Primary funders/partners/donors include the Wild Salmon Center, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), Columbia County Road Department, Weyerhaeuser Company, and Stimson Lumber Company.

One of the most visible projects this past year partnered with Columbia County Road Department on Oak Ranch Creek and replaced an undersized culvert under Apiary Road with an open bottom reinforced concrete arch allowing unconditional salmon passage. That project, along with two other bridge installation projects that replaced undersized culverts in the Mist/Birkenfeld area on Lane Creek and Calvin Creek, opened up a total of 20 miles of productive aquatic habitat.

“We did ‘stream simulation’ work on all three of those crossings, which is an additional layer of work that rebuilds the stream beds once the culvert is removed but before the bridge is placed,” explains Peyton. “It stabilizes that reach of the stream and protects the bridge abutments.”

Two of those projects were in collaboration with Weyerhaeuser, who Peyton says were good partners to work with. “I have to give them a thumbs up – they did a really good job helping write the grant for funding, managing the projects, and keeping us in the loop.”

The other high profile project was the installation of what are called Beaver Dam Analogues (BDA) on four different streams that contain wild coho salmon, steelhead, and cutthroat trout populations. This pilot project installed a total of 27 structures (wood poles sunk vertically into the ground about two feet apart across the stream and then interwoven horizontally with willow, maple, or conifer branches) in small stream tributaries on ODF managed public land, including the north Fork of Lousignont Creek south of Highway 26 towards Timber, on Upper Rock Creek and Bear Creek near the rest area on Highway 26, and Buster Creek near Jewell.

These BDAs act as footholds for the beaver to build out into full-fledged dams, providing shallow, cold water pools where coho can find food and cover from predators. These types of off-channel habitats are essential for juvenile coho and other species to survive and grow.

Beavers are considered a “keystone species,” an organism whose pond-creating powers help support entire biological communities.

“They’re primary inhabitants of our temperate rain forest,” says Peyton. “Beaver and coho have evolved together, so when the beavers colonize an area and create those backwater pools, that’s where juvenile coho and adults can thrive. We need to get our ecosystem back into balance, and helping re-establish beavers in the region is one way we can do that.”

In addition, Peyton says beaver dams can work to slow down stream flows in a particular small area during high water events and act as natural valley water storage areas. “These can help slow the water during heavy rains and help capture sediment, but we’re really working against years of history and the way our forests have been managed in the past.”

Peyton says the BDA pilot project was a partnership with ODF, NOAA, OWEB, NFWF, and the Wild Salmon Center. She says Rapid Bio Assessments were done prior to the BDA placement, which counts and documents the presence of juvenile fish, so effectiveness can be monitored.

“All the areas where we installed these BDAs show evidence that beaver colonies had been there before, and there is still some kind of a beaver presence,” says Peyton. “We have a monitoring protocol so we’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t.” She notes that one site on Rock Creek has already been naturally improved by the work of local beavers and is now a functional dam.

Another ongoing UNWC project is to help rebuild streams to a more natural setting. This past year the UNWC continued their work, placing 33 Large Woody Debris structures along salmon anchor habitat reaches and enhancing over two miles of streams on Olson Creek, the north fork of Lousignont Creek, Beaver Creek, and at Hyla Woods.

Logs for these projects include the root wads and are strategically placed in creeks and streams to form structures that assist in the creation of naturally forming log jams while interacting with the stream flow to create flood plain connection and sort the gravels that flow through. The log jams jump start the process of restoring a stream’s natural state after decades of intensive logging and help spread out fish habitat.

The placement of Large Woody Debris in streams also helps capture and slow the flow of water downstream during high water events, and allows water to soak in and recharge groundwater supplies.

The UNWC undertook a variety of other projects this year, including:

  • participated in the process to get a 17 mile portion of the Nehalem River designated as a State Scenic Waterway
  • continued riparian reforestation on 30+ acres in partnership with private landowners, the Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Columbia River Youth Corp crew
  • supported riparian reforestation through the Nehalem Native Nursery, managed by the UNWC and located on the Vernonia School District campus with the help of the Vernonia High School Forestry class
  • managed about 50 volunteers from the Oregon Zoo who recently spent time working on a riparian restoration project in Vernonia, planting trees and vegetation
  • collected water quality samples from 30 select locations in the Nehalem basin for turbidity testing (amount of sediment) during the winter rainy season, and at over 30 sites to record temperatures during summer low-flow season

The temperature samples were disappointing, says Peyton. “Temperatures in the summer are too hot, and often lethal on the main stem of the Nehalem. That seems to be the trend and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

According to Peyton, the temperature problem is multi-facetted. While the UNWC has been able to make a small impact, the problem really starts in the headwaters and is going to take some major changes in the way the state regulates forest management. Peyton says that currently under the Oregon Forest Practices Act the headwaters of streams do not have to be buffered when logged until they become perennial streams (streams that flow with water year round). “As a community and as a state I think we’re still trying to accept what it’s going to take to cool the Nehalem, and that is to start at the headwaters”

The amount of sediment in streams is also a result of the accumulative effects of forest, farm, residential, and urban land management practices over the last 150 years. “The temperature issues and the sediment is a direct result of the way the land is being managed,” says Peyton.

Peyton and the UNWC are currently wrapping up their work on a Nehalem Strategic Plan with the Wild Salmon Center and their multi stakeholder team this winter. “This process lays the foundation for identifying current and future salmon anchor habitat improvement projects in high priority sub-basins and stream reaches throughout the Nehalem watershed,” says Peyton. “This process led directly to the BDA pilot project, and hopefully some ongoing funding and future projects.”

Peyton says the UNWC continues to improve their base operations, computer networks, outreach activities, and staff development with the support of the UNWC Board of Directors. Their website is back online at UNWC.Nehalem.org. The website is a great place to learn more about current projects and volunteer opportunities.

This summer Peyton says the UNWC will be partnering to install more BDAs in the region. “We’ve received another round of funding and identified several brand new reaches, plus we have funding left over from the original project that we can use to augment the first 27 we put in,” says Peyton. UNWC will also be placing Large Woody Debris structures around the region this summer..

Peyton says they are currently looking for more interested citizens to serve on their Board of Directors.

“We haven’t been able to cool the Nehalem River, so that’s still a big question,” says Peyton. “The level that we’re able to work at, compared to the magnitude of what has happened in this watershed over the last 150 years, is just too small, plus now we have these climate changes and our summer draughts are getting longer. We still have a lot of work to do.”

This article was originally published in the Vernonia’s Voice issue on 3/21/19 and is used here with permission from the author.