Geos Institute helps communities build resilience in the face of climate change

DWPP Featured Projects

Learn more about some of the featured projects that received Drinking Water Providers Funding over the years.

Flood damaged creek will go back in time

Thanks to funding from the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, the Rogue River Watershed Council is about to embark upon a quarter-million-dollar effort to reconnect Little Butte Creek to its floodplain as it flows through the City of Eagle Point. In 2016, the Partnership helped to fund planning and design work to return the creek to its historic meander and reduce erosion. Little Butte Creek jumped its channel during the New Year’s Day flood of 1997 and has since been eating away at City-owned property that the community hopes to turn into a park.

“The creek now cuts a tight dog-leg right and is scouring out the bank, adding extra sediment to the creek that neither wild coho salmon juveniles nor Medford water drinkers want to see.”

Learn more in this article from the Medford Mail Tribune.

31 January 2018

Reducing erosion in Southern Oregon’s Little Butte Creek

The Freshwater Trust (TFT) is using satellite imagery, science-based modeling, and publicly available data to identify sites where restoration will reduce erosion into southern Oregon’s Little Butte Creek.

“More than $5.6 billion is needed in drinking water infrastructure repairs and improvements in Oregon over the next 20 years as we make room for another one to two million residents – all of whom will need clean water,” said Cathy Kellon, Working Waters Program Director with the Geos Institute. “The Partnership’s work is a critical starting point because safe drinking water starts upstream.”

The Geos Institute is a member of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, a public/private partnership that recently awarded TFT a $20,000 grant to do the assessment with important matching contributions from the Medford Water Commission and Rogue Basin Partnership. Watershed restoration is viewed as an effective way to support clean, inexpensive drinking water, while also providing important habitat for native fish.

Read more about the project here.

25 August 2017

Fixing roads for fish and people in the Umpqua

Guest Author, Marlies Wierenga, WildEarth Guardians

Almost in the center of Douglas County Oregon sits a town of nearly 2,000 people called Glide. A unique phenomenon occurs in Glide and nowhere else in the world – two rivers collide head-to-head into each other. The Little River flows up from the south and the Umpqua River, flowing from the east, takes a sharp bend and meets the Little River at almost a straight angle. Swirling eddies and rapids in the crystal blue waters are mesmerizing.

Photo by Little Mountain 5

But we are not here to (only) watch two rivers collide. Cathy, from the Geos Institute, and myself, from WildEarth Guardians, came to learn how the Umpqua National Forest is working to keep the river clean and clear. More than half of the residents of Glide depend on drinking water drawn from the Umpqua River. Investing in measures that keep water clean at the source is a common sense strategy for keeping water treatment costs down and protecting public health. Though the upstream forested lands with towering Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock seem like great water protectors, it is the thousands of miles of roads criss-crossing the forest that can cause the greatest risk to Glide’s drinking water.

The Umpqua National Forest attempts to maintain 4,706 miles of old roads on a budget of under $800,000 per year, which is less than 20% of what is needed. As roads are neglected, the chance of a culvert plugging and tons of road fill washing downstream increases dramatically. When a culvert fails, it sends a burst of sediment rushing into the stream. The amount of sediment or suspended materials in the water is known as turbidity and over this past winter, the town had to shut down the water treatment plant 5 times because the turbidity was so high it clogged up the treatment plant water filters.

Photo courtesy of the Umpqua National Forest, USFS
Photo courtesy of Glide Water Association

As members of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership, Cathy and I were also here to see how grant monies are used. The Partnership has two main goals:

Restore and protect the health of watersheds, which communities depend upon for drinking water while also benefiting aquatic and riparian ecosystems, including the native fish that inhabit them.
Support local partnerships between drinking water providers, landowners, and restoration practitioners.

The Umpqua National Forest was awarded grants in both 2016 and 2017. Glide’s Source Water Assessment rated road building, maintenance and road use as increasing the risk for turbidity in drinking water due to increased erosion and slope failure. Glide and the Umpqua National Forest are working together to reduce these risks to drinking water and improve fish habitat.

Cathy and I met Mark and Joe from the Forest Service at their offices in town, within sight of the North Umpqua, and proceeded to head upriver. After driving for many miles, Mark parked the vehicle at the end of a road facing a rusted, flattened culvert. We stepped out to see last year’s work in the Fox Creek drainage of the North Umpqua River. On just under 2 miles of road, 8 cross-drains were removed, 4 stream-crossings were restored and risky road-fill was pulled back. Native seed and slash were used to control erosion where soil was exposed. At first glance, I admit it was not a pretty sight but a closer look showed native grasses sprouting and ferns filling in. As we clambered down to the first stream-crossing, we learned that one crossing had 2,900 cubic yards of fill perched on top of an old culvert. That’s about 200 dump trucks full of soil and clay! By removing the culvert, re-aligning the slopes, and reconnecting the stream, the risk of all of that sediment flushing down to Glide’s drinking water intake was virtually nil.

It’s not only drinking water that is better protected with this type of work. Fish benefit as well. When a road washes out, that material clogs spawning gravels. The Umpqua River is a beloved fishing destination and home to coho, Chinook and steelhead. Thirty-three miles of the North Umpqua River is fly-fishing only territory and is considered one of the most beautiful and difficult places to catch steelhead. Keeping the river waters clean and clear for fish and fishing is also a goal of the Forest Service.

With limited funding to fix the thousands of miles of road wending through the Forest, Mark knows that they have to prioritize their efforts. Later this summer field crews will be using a combination of GIS analysis and field surveying, following a tested protocol called Geomorphic Roads Analysis and Inventory Package (GRAIP), to look at 250 miles of roads in the Steamboat Creek subbasin so as to pinpoint the locations that pose the greatest risk to water quality. In other places where GRAIP has been used, the assessments showed that 90% of sediment came from just 10% of roads, road segments or road/stream crossings.

GRAIP will allow Mark and Joe to identify the areas with the highest potential for erosion and road failure which gives them the information they need to prioritize road segment treatments, whether that’s better road maintenance, storm-proofing, culvert removals or upgrades, road decommissioning or road storage. Focusing on the real problem spots is a common sense and cost-effective way to ensure erosion risks are truly reduced for fish, the Glide Water Association, and everyone who lives and recreates in this beautiful place.

As the tour ended near one of the many rapids on the Umpqua River, we thanked our hosts. I couldn’t bear leaving the area so soon, so I set-up my tent next to the river and enjoyed a few more hours being mesmerized by beautiful waters.

North Umpqua river near Steamboat Inn. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM

18 July 2017

From Forest to Faucet: Upper Rickreall Creek Watershed Enhancement

It’s September in western Oregon and a helicopter whirrs overhead. A 32” diameter Douglas-Fir log is tethered from the helicopter’s underside with a heavy cable. On the ground below, a crew of workers are directing the swinging log’s placement into Rickreall Creek. But why all the effort to bring in helicopters to drop logs into a creek? Bounded on both sides by private and federal timber lands, this section of Rickreall Creek is part of a much bigger effort to improve water quality and recover the health and productivity of the entire Rickreall watershed.

Rickreall Creek originates on the forested, eastern slopes of Oregon’s Coast Range and eventually winds its way through fertile valley bottomlands to meet the Willamette River just west of Salem. Over the past century this creek has undergone tremendous changes. With ample water flows, loggers in the early 20th century discovered they could transport logs from the productive wooded hillsides downstream to the towns of Dallas and Rickreall for milling without the need for splash dams. These activities were a boon to the local economy but log drives caused the stream channel to cut down, scouring it to bedrock in many places, and removed much of the existing large wood that naturally accumulates in rivers and provides benefits such as collecting gravel that filters water and provides fish habitat.

“When I stand in the creek in areas that are bedrock flats today and look up at nearby steep, often rocky, walls, I wonder if, in the absence of the log drives, I might be under 15 feet of gravel and buried large wood that would last centuries.” – Lucas Hunt, Polk Soil & Water Conservation District

Although it’s been a long time since logs were sent down the river, a pattern was set; after each rain storm, water rushes headlong down the incised channel, carrying away gravels and fine sediment, and further disconnecting the stream from its historic floodplain. When the Rockhouse Fire swept through the upper part of Rickreall drainage in 1987, it found a less resilient river system. Most of the old growth trees near the river were lost which meant there would be no large trees available for 30-40 years to naturally fall into the stream; assuring there would be a lack of the in-stream habitat needed to support diverse aquatic life and slow down flood waters.

During this time, the Rickreall’s workhorse stream flows have also sustained the nearby City of Dallas. Looking for a source of drinking water for its growing community, Dallas started tapping tributaries in the Rickreall in the late 19th century. In 1959 the city built Mercer Reservoir in the upper basin to protect and enhance their only water source. While the Rickreall has been a reliable source for drinking water through the years, the creek is often clouded with sediment by the time it reaches the reservoir, creating water treatment challenges and added expenditures for Dallas. Runoff also threatens to fill the reservoir with sediment, shortening its useful storage life.

By 2000, it was clear that if residents, ratepayers, and landowners wanted to ensure reliable drinking water supplies and good fish habitat, Rickreall Creek would need a new type of human intervention – to help repair and re-establish the stream’s original natural characteristics and watershed processes.

Collaborative Efforts Key to Renewing Natural Processes

Local groups and individuals began cooperating on shared goals and restoration projects that would replace large wood in-stream, plant native riparian trees and shrubs, and reconnect the stream with its historic floodplain. The vision for upper Rickreall Creek is to help it again wander laterally, creating what stream ecologists call a, “shifting habitat mosaic.” Pulses of sediment, nutrients, gravels, wood, and water will vary through time and over the landscape, creating and reshaping log jams, side channels, and other dynamic structures that nurture biodiversity. Log jams, especially large ones, serve to reset natural ecological processes by slowing down flood waters, recharging the groundwater and allowing fine sediments to settle out.

A confluence of factors lined up in order for the current Upper Rickreall Habitat Enhancement project to become a reality. To date, there have been several phases of restoration work. A 2013 project where the South Fork Rickreall Creek joins the main stem provided even more evidence and inspiration. That project utilized a large wood installation to successfully slow water flow, trap sediments and gravel for improved salmon spawning, and reduce summer water temperatures.

As word spread, local interest in, and support for, enhancing habitat in Rickreall Creek grew. Landowners and individuals around the watershed were willing to jump in and help.

Another restoration phase started when trees were felled in 2014 by the BLM in anticipation of more restoration actions moving forward – but once cut they only have 3-5 years before they are no longer useable.

They could proceed with securing the necessary permits but there was one major hurdle left: efficiently and safely moving the wood. Although some log placement projects can exclusively use ground equipment like excavators, this one required moving logs in sensitive areas that lack road access. A helicopter was needed, at a cost of almost $190,000. The project team had compiled a mix of funds, including over $72,000 from the BLM which was set to expire in 2017 if not utilized. Time was of the essence.

In December 2015, Lucas Hunt with the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District heard of a funding opportunity by the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. The call for proposals was for projects just like this: one that uses watershed restoration strategies to meet drinking water and fish needs. He and his colleagues at the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District put together an application and hoped for the best.

Drinking Water Providers Partnership Supports Rickreall Creek Restoration

In March 2016, Lucas and his colleagues heard the good news. The Partnership selected their proposal funding. Without missing a beat the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District, Hancock Forest Management, Rickreall Watershed Council, and the Bureau of Land Management jumped into action. It almost felt like fate to have a chance to raise the remaining funds just in time to secure the helicopter.

In late August the first helicopter arrived for one day but the competing demands of fire season meant that work could only proceed when the helicopters were freed from the unpredictable schedule of putting out wildfires. Project staff had to be ready to respond, often on short notice, and put in very long days whenever a helicopter was available. Yet over the course of the next month, 30 hours of helicopter time were registered and by the end of September, upper Rickreall Creek had gained 522 new logs and 34 new in-stream structures. It was a massive feat of coordination and cooperation, much celebrated by the project partners and the community. The felled trees, now placed in and across the stream, will improve sediment retention, reducing the need for dredging in the reservoir. The work also improves water quality and retention of water upstream of the reservoir, which means enhanced water supply in late spring and early summer. Benefits from this work will accrue over the years and flow downstream.

But it’s only the beginning. The Upper Rickreall Habitat Enhancement project includes several ongoing monitoring and data gathering components as well as placement of 150 more logs in two other locations above the reservoir. These are designed to ensure the project is successful at meeting its goals, but perhaps even more importantly, are meant to provide critical lessons learned so that future projects designed to help drinking water and fish – in this watershed and elsewhere – avoid missteps and build upon what works.

Interested in this type of project for your community? Visit the Drinking Water Providers Partnership page to learn more and apply for funding.

Photos courtesy of Polk Soil & Water Conservation District, BLM, and Hancock Forest Management

News Articles

22 November 2016

Baker City and Forest Service Work to Protect Drinking Water

Guest Author, Marlies Wierenga, WildEarth Guardians

Sipping my Pallet Jack IPA at Barley Brown’s brewery on an early September evening, I didn’t put much thought into the primary ingredient of the beer – water. Me and my fellow brewery companions just enjoyed our beers. Having won many awards, Barley Brown is known for its beer. Located in historic Baker City, Oregon – locals and travelers converge to raise pints and swap stories.

It wasn’t until the next day, when I began listening to Michelle Owen and Jake Jones from the City of Baker City and Robert Macon and Kelby Witherspoon from the U.S. Forest Service describe the drinking water watershed that the connection was made in my head. Seems silly given that I was in Baker City as a member of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership. The partnership was formed to help restore and protect the health of watersheds which communities depend upon for drinking water while also benefiting aquatic and riparian ecosystems. One way we achieve this is through an annual grant program. In late 2015 Baker City applied for, and received, a grant to help purchase and install fencing in their ongoing effort to protect their drinking water source area. It’d seem obvious that I would consider water while drinking beer, but like most people, I often take clean water (and good beer) for granted.

As our vehicle left historic city hall and headed up into the surrounding mountains, I began to listen, learn, and see what a gift the community of Baker City really has. Being one of only three unfiltered water systems in Oregon, the water is both amazingly pure and also highly vulnerable. We traveled up-valley, passing by the ranch of longtime residents the Fosters who have a strong relationship with the City, community, and stewarding the land. As we continued driving upwards, we left the grassy slopes behind and entered the ponderosa pine forests. Crossing into the Forest Service lands, we could see Elk Creek trickling along at the bottom of the valley slope. Being early September, water flow in the creek was fairly low.

We were heading up into the watershed so I could see what was accomplished in order to share with other Partnership members. Baker City draws water from many diversions from small streams draining off the surrounding 9,000 feet plus mountains in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Three years ago, the City experienced a cryptosporidium outbreak, which was a big alert to the community that more was needed to protect this irreplaceable resource.

Cryptosporidium comes from human or animal sources. To avoid this kind of problem, other cities that have unfiltered water systems err on the side of caution and have closed their watersheds to people and cows. Baker City is trying to carefully balance the desires of its community: access for grazing, access for hunters, and protections for the community’s pure water. By fencing high priority areas, the City hopes to keep cattle away from entering the more vulnerable areas.

When I ask Jake, who has been with the City for over 25 years, when the fencing project would be done, he responded that fencing is never “done”. It’s ongoing with about 10% of the fencing needing to be repaired every year in addition to installing more. Fencing can break due to animals (i.e. elk, cattle), weather (snow, ice), and humans (cutting fencing). The watershed is big – 10,000 acres – so it’s impossible to fence it all. This is why the work needs to be focused.

When we finally reach our destination, we step out of our vehicles to see a neat line of fence on one side of the road and a wobbly, leaning, fence line on the other side. Traditional barbed wire lines stretch between posts while the bottom line is barb-free so smaller animals can move through. Fencing can solve some problems by keeping cattle out, but then can cause other problems for wildlife. Since this is National Forest land, there are specific requirements to be followed in order to minimize impacts to wildlife.

Jake points out the different posts that hold up the fencing. The wooden posts are built locally and the City tries to purchase as many of these as possible. One of the City’s greatest challenges is capitalizing on new areas of economic growth. Supporting local micro-businesses is one way. A distillery has also just opened in town, benefiting from the great quality of the water flowing down the hills. City staff know that keeping the water clean and pure is not only good for the health of the community but is also tied to economic growth.

The Drinking Water Providers Partnership funding helped support the City in buying supplies and finance part of the labor and contractors for fencing. The Forest Service and Baker City worked together on the project, with support from the Fosters, who are one of the two grazing permittees.

After taking some photos, we return to our vehicles to follow the road back to town. When I ask why Baker City is a such a great place to live and work, Jake says: “It’s a postcard every day.”

And now I know one big reason why Barley Brown’s beer is so good – it’s the water.

11 November 2016

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