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

Freeways for Fish

From 2005 to 2015, Freeways for Fish successfully restored fish access to 1,200 miles of the Rogue River and its tributaries in southwest Oregon. Native fauna are now better prepared for changes in water availability due to climate change, while local residents are enjoying more reliable stream and river flow, healthier landscapes, and the knowledge that their grandchildren will be able to fish, hike, and boat in the same waterways they know and love.

Throughout the 1900s and into this century, the health and productivity of native salmon and trout has diminished along the west coast and in recent decades, a warming climate has further challenged salmon recovery. In the Rogue River basin, native fish had a really hard time accessing some of the best habitat because of various obstacles –dams on the main stem, entrenched streams disconnected from their side channels, and irrigation diversion dams on many of the tributaries. Without access to good spawning and rearing habitat or cool water refuges during low summer flows, the fate of salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and trout did not bode well.

About the Initiative

In 2005, Geos staff members decided to set an ambitious goal to give native fish a fighting chance in the face of climate change. They hatched the idea of the Freeways for Fish campaign to open access to high quality habitat across the Rogue basin by removing dams and repairing fish ladders that were making it hard or impossible for fish to pass. They completed a science assessment to identify the top priority barriers to remove, set the goal at reopening 1,200 miles of habitat for native fish, and set out to get the projects done.

A graphic of a blue river running diagonal from bottom left to top right. Along the left side are markers for every 100 river miles. Along the right side are markers showing the locations and years of the projects of the initiatives.

To meet our goal, we partnered with diverse stakeholder groups in the community, along with public and private partners, including WaterWatch, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, River Design Group, Inc., L & S Rock Products, Inc., the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and many more. Together, we removed outdated dams and diversions and restored floodplains in order to recover some of our historic stream health and help make wildlife and fish populations more resilient in the face of warmer, drier climate conditions.

With the removal of two final dams in 2015, we surpassed our goal by creating access for fish to 1,299 river miles in the Rogue River system! All of this work was possible because of the support we have received from many different individuals, foundations, and government agencies. From removing several of the worst fish impediments in the state of Oregon to improving the design of water diversion structures, we’re proud to say that stream health is improving and native fish now have more room to roam in the Rogue River basin than they’ve had in a century.

A blue line map of the Rogue River and tributaries with green stars indicating the locations of dams that were removed

Learn more about some of our Freeways for Fish projects:

Gold Ray Dam (2010)

Gold Ray Dam Removed

For 106 years the Gold Ray Dam sat on the mainstem of the Rogue, just upstream from the town of Gold Hill, hindering the migration of native fish. In the early 1970s the hydroelectric dam became obsolete and ownership was transferred to Jackson County. It was considered a liability, so in the 2000s, Freeways for Fish worked alongside Jackson County and many other partner groups to determine the future of the Gold Ray Dam.

Studies conducted by the County justified removing the dam for biological, social, and economic advantages, as well as to reduce the county’s liability. The Geos Institute helped Jackson County develop the dam removal plans, secure funding, and oversee the work. The dam was removed in early fall 2010, converting two miles of warm reservoir waters back to free-flowing current. For the first time in over a century, salmon and steelhead could travel unimpeded between the Pacific Ocean and the upper Rogue basin. Moreover, in true “if-you-remove-it-they-will-spawn” fashion, the stretch of river below the former reservoir has reworked itself over the past few years into an important spawning ground for fall Chinook.

Before Gold Ray Dam removal
After Gold Ray Dam removal
Little Butte Creek (2011)

Little Butte Creek Remeander 

An areal map of little butte creek with lines drawn on showing the current channel, historic channel, and restored channel

The lower reaches of Little Butte Creek were once among the most important salmon producing tributaries in the Rogue Basin. Around 1950, however, much of meandering Little Butte Creek was straightened, with disastrous consequences for native fish. Freeways for Fish worked directly with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, River Design Group, Inc., L & S Rock Products, Inc. and several other local partners to restore stream flow to one meandering reach of Little Butte Creek in the Denman Wildlife Area near Medford, Oregon. 

Little Butte Creek Restoration Project update

Ecotrust brochure highlighting the Little Butte Creek Restoration Project

“Over the years, the combined stress from homes, agriculture, and invasive plants took their toll on lower Little Butte Creek. It resembled more of a ditch that a salmon stream. The recent remeandering and riparian restoration work along the creek near the confluence with the Rogue River was the perfect prescription. It is providing a huge boost for salmon, steelhead, and lamprey, water quality, and riparian-dependent birds. This project provides a great template for additional work on Little Butte and other valley bottom streams in Rogue.”

-Jack Williams, Ph.D., Senior Scientist for Trout Unlimited

After a major flooding event in 1955, Little Butte Creek was transformed from a winding stretch of slow-moving creek to a narrow, high-velocity straightaway under the belief that water should be moved quickly from the area. Disconnected from its floodplain, this turbulent waterway provided no safe haven for fish during high-water events, and its steep, artificial berms provided little shade, leading to high summer water temperatures.

In 2007, a manager at the Denman Wildlife Area began to explore the possibility of reconnecting the creek to its meandering channel. Although Little Butte Creek was a shadow of its former self, it was still one of the Rogue River Valley’s most important salmon streams. Improvements to the creek would create critical new rearing and spawning habitat for Coho and Chinook, giving these important fish a population boost. But the impacts of stream restoration could extend even beyond wildlife habitat improvements, providing additional flood protection to the downstream communities of Gold Hill, Rogue River, and Grants Pass.

After several years of preparation, work on the project began in the summer of 2011. Freeways for Fish acted as the project manager, engaging construction and design firms, managing permitting, and overseeing the work itself. The project was staffed with almost 100% local contractors, amplifying the impact of the project on the local community.

“I hired an employee who’d been laid off from his previous job. When I talked with him about wrapping up restoration work this season he said, ‘When you hired me, I was behind on my bills, and I want to let you know that I’m caught upon my bills, and I’m not apprehensive about the winter.”

– Bill Leavens, Owner, L&S Rock Products in Central Point

Over the next three months, crews excavated the new, old channel for Little Butte Creek, installed three riffles, constructed 13 large wood jams, and planted willows to give the system a jump start on creating complex habitat.

In addition to re-routing the water itself, Freeways for Fish dedicated substantial energy to stream bank restoration. Two unique techniques were used to mimic natural riparian areas:

  • Vegetated soil lift
    To create new habitat ideal for willows and other riparian plant populations, construction workers used coir logs and matting to create streamside native soil lifts that resist erosion before vegetation becomes established. The lifts were planted with willow shoots, and designed to encourage rapid and healthy vegetative growth.

  • Toe wood/sod mat structures
    Designed to slow water flow and create stable banks, workers also installed logs extending from the stream banks into the river at a slightly downstream angle. The portion of the logs resting on the stream banks were covered in sod mats salvaged from the excavation of the new channel. Sod mats encourage the growth of lush vegetation, while the wood structures protruding into the stream capture fine substrate and reinforce the channel edge.

After earthmoving was complete, the newly formed banks were planted with dozens of species of native trees and shrubs to minimize erosion, develop shade, create velocity refuge for fish during flood events, and provide food sources for juvenile fish.

Returning the channel to its former course added nearly half a mile to Little Butte Creek, and dramatically improved the quality of the habitat for native fish (particularly salmon and steelhead). Stream channel restoration also expanded the amount of floodplain area along the stream’s banks, which will help dampen the effects of flooding and make for better wildlife habitat.

The success of the Little Butte Creek project was felt by wildlife as well as members of the local community. Bill Leavens of L&S Rocks Products, a local firm that helped with channel reconstruction work, says it best: “There is a high degree of satisfaction in sitting up on equipment and seeing salmon swim by you in the channel you just reconstructed” 

Wagner Creek (2013)

Wagner Creek Diversion Structure To Be Replaced With Fish-Friendly Design

Geos Institute recently completed landowner and water user agreements with 19 parties that will allow the replacement of a diversion structure on Wagner Creek near Talent, Oregon, with a structure that will allow fish of all size to pass quickly and safely. The existing structure is old, leaky, and nearly impossible for fish to migrate past during spring, summer, and fall months. Even during winter, water flows must be just right to permit adult fish to pass. Geos Institute is now working with Cascade Stream Services to design a structure that will allow the water users to continue diverting their water right while also allowing even small fish to swim past the site under all but the most extreme flow conditions.

In 2013, Geos Institute entered into a replacement agreement with Cascade Stream Services, the owners of the land where the Beeson-Robison diversion structure crosses Wagner Creek, and 17 other parties. The current structure, which supplied 13 irrigators, presented several major impediments for steelhead and coho returning to their spawning grounds in Bear Creek. Between April and October, the stream was completely blocked by the diversion structure, allowing no fish to pass upstream. Upstream passage was sometimes possible during the winter months, but required a three-foot-high vertical jump to clear the concrete sill. Although the diversion was screened, the existing bypass pipe dropped fish from a height of four feet into a shallow pool, an unnecessary stress that made downstream travelers more vulnerable to predation and disease.

In partnership with Cascade Stream Solutions, Freeways for Fish recommends replacing the outdated diversion dam with an improved irrigation water collection box which can provide more reliable flow than the old structure. After removing the dam, Freeways for Fish proposes a 160-foot, 5% gradient re-profiled stream channel with step-pool sequences for fish passage as well as downwells to transition screened fish safely back to Wagner Creek. These changes will result in year-round fish passage while also maintaining the diversion rate, a benefit for wildlife as well as irrigators.

Gold Hill Irrigation District (2014)

Gold Hill Irrigation District Improves Fish Passage At Dam On Rogue River

The Gold Hill Irrigation District operates a diversion dam on the Rogue River near the town of Gold Hill. The diversion dam and canal, which supplies the community with irrigation water, had been virtually unchanged since 1916. Design flaws meant that many migratory fish were diverted along with the irrigation water, ending up in an irrigation canal where they were easy prey for bird and mammal predators.

In partnership with Freeways for Fish, the Gold Hill Irrigation District undertook a major upgrade and restoration project that improved safety for migrating fish at the site. Together, we

  • Decreased the amount of water and the number of fish diverted out of the Rogue River without affecting the District’s water right
  • Returned diverted fish to the Rogue River quickly by replacing an open ditch with a pipe, eliminating the risk of predation in the canal environment
  • Removed a canal overflow area that attracted adult fish away from the Rogue River

Each spring for millennia, downstream-migrating young salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey have been traveling from the upper parts of the Rogue Basin all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In the last few decades, however, many wound up diverted along with irrigation water at the Gold Hill Irrigation District’s diversion structure. For nearly a century, these diverted fish spent days – or weeks – in a ¼-mile long irrigation canal before they could return to the mainstem of the Rogue River.

The water in the irrigation canal was warm and shallow, creating stressful conditions for fish and high rates of predation by birds and mammals. Downstream from the dam, another canal spillway attracted migrating fish away from the river and into a shallow, debris-filled dead end. Away from the protection of the deep, cool Rogue River, these adult fish were also easy prey for large predators.

In August 2014, the Gold Hill Irrigation District initiated construction to replace the open irrigation ditch with a closed pipe. The project has since decreased the number of fish that are diverted into the district’s facilities, moving any fish that do get diverted back into the Rogue River quickly, and eliminating the attraction of the canal bypass area. These improvements have increased the survival of young salmon on their way to the ocean, as well as the number of spawning fish that reach the upper Rogue each year. 

Evans Creek (2015)

Removing Fielder and Wimer Dams from Evans Creek

In 2015, after many years of planning, the Fielder and Wimer dams – two of the worst fish impediments in the state of Oregon – were finally removed from Evans Creek, an important salmon and steelhead tributary of the Rogue River. Geos Institute acted as the project manager for both dam removals, technical projects involving a host of players, logistics, and permits. Now that these dams are gone, 16 miles of Chinook habitat, 60 miles of coho habitat, and more than 70 miles of steelhead habitat are once again open and accessible for local fish.

Constructed more than a hundred years ago as irrigation diversions, by the 21st century the Fielder and Wimer dams had become virtually abandoned. They served no active water rights and had no operator, prompting the Department of Fish and Wildlife to list them among the top-10 worst barriers to fish passage in the state.

After securing access agreements with the property owners, the necessary funding, and partner groups, Geos Institute assumed responsibility for project management. Together with River Design Group, we developed a plan to safely remove each dam and reclaim the construction site by eliminating debris, decommissioning site access roads, and seeding riparian areas for erosion control, turning Evans Creek back into a free-flowing river.

Dam removal took place in the summer of 2015. Historically low water levels amplified turbidity issues, resulting in limited working hours to manage downstream water quality. High wildfire activity also impacted the project. Despite these challenges, both dams were removed by mid-September, in time for the fall Chinook run.

Brian Barr, the project manager for Freeways for Fish, describes the feeling of seeing a river flow free after more than a century. “Honestly, where I kind of tear up, or well up, or get really excited…it’s when I have to go back and take repeat photos and I’ll look at the picture I have. ‘Okay, I was standing on this rock and that three was in the middle of the frame and there’s a big piece of concrete.’ And then I set it down, and I frame up that same image. And it’s a creek. That’s where I feel it.”

Before removal of Fielder Dam
After removal of Fielder Dam

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