Rebuild Wild Abundance on the North Umpqua River this #GivingTuesday

Photo: Dana Renton

Today is the day! On Giving Tuesday, people around the world will come together to participate in a global day of generosity. This year, all #GivingTuesday proceeds will go directly to the North Umpqua Coalition’s mission of rebuilding wild abundance on the North Umpqua River.

In the last few years, the North Umpqua has experienced historic wildfires, high water temperatures, and low returns. Now is our chance to support this river, its wild fisheries, and help build the next chapter in its story. Oregon can embark on a new journey that envisions managing fisheries on the river, focusing on fostering abundant wild fish populations that support recreational fisheries, healthy ecosystems, and increased natural resilience to our changing climate.

Even if you can’t give monetarily, you can help by sharing on social media to let your loved ones know today is the day to support wild abundance on the North Umpqua! Grassroots generosity and community action are powerful forces for good, especially in turbulent times. Join us in safeguarding and rebuilding wild abundance on the North Umpqua!

Donate $100 or more to the #GivingTuesday campaign and get a North Umpqua Book by Dan Callaghan! Support an all-wild North Umpqua River by donating to North Umpqua Coalition member organizations on Giving Tuesday!

Click here to donate to the North Umpqua Coalition

Kirk BlaineRebuild Wild Abundance on the North Umpqua River this #GivingTuesday

Bring Them Back Better

By Karl Konecny

The iconic North Umpqua summer steelhead run is collapsing.  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed the river to fishing to protect the few remaining wild fish.  As an organization founded by anglers dedicated to the protection of this river we are very saddened but fully support the closure and are committed to addressing all the issues that have depleted this iconic run of fish. The annual snorkel survey of Steamboat and Canton Creek, traditional spawning ground strongholds, found only 59 wild steelhead, none of them in Canton Creek.  In 2000, Dan Callaghan captured his iconic photo of over 400 wild summer steelhead in the Big Bend pool of Steamboat Creek. In 1999 the run was even more amazing, over 600 fish were in that resting pool.  The photo above was taken in 2012. In just over 20 years, the famous North Umpqua summer steelhead run has collapsed by over eighty percent.

The North Umpqua steelhead run has been influenced by humans for millennia.  Native Americans thrived in the watershed, subsisting on the natural abundance.  European immigrants began commercial harvest of the apparently endless salmon runs in the 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, the Oregon legislature, concerned over diminishing runs, turned to the unproven promise of hatcheries — building the first one on the North Umpqua in 1900.  In 1927, a dirt road was pushed through to the mouth of Steamboat Creek.  Sport-fishing camps soon followed, word of the spectacular run of large steelhead got out and anglers began to arrive from around the world.  Zane Grey first fished the North Umpqua in 1931.

After World War II activity really heated up.  A paved road was pushed up the stream side grade, not only altering the bed and character of the canyon river but allowing access to dam builders and timber companies.  The upper most river accessible to steelhead was cutoff by dams and a web of logging roads began to push into the tributary valleys.  By 1949, depleted runs forced the closure of the river to commercial harvest.  Yet the summer steelhead persisted, although at reduced levels.

In 1957 Frank and Jeanne Moore bought Clarence Gordon’s store downstream of Steamboat Creek (the remnant of his North Umpqua Lodge) and developed Steamboat Inn.  Poor logging practices began to decimate tributary streams.  In 1964 Frank Moore instigated the production of the film “Pass Creek” that documented the logging damage and pushed for reform.  While logging practices have improved, there is continuing harm from the extensive road network, the mass conversion of the native forest into young overstocked plantations, insufficient riparian buffers, and widespread herbicide use on private timberland.In 2019 much of the Steamboat Creek drainage was designated The Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary, honoring the tireless work of the Moores for the North Umpqua’s iconic steelhead run and specifying that the watershed be managed for the prosperity of the fish.  Unfortunately, no money was allocated for restoration and management of the landscape.

Lately, the impacts of climate change are becoming undeniably obvious and the summer steelhead are suffering from them.  Reduced snow pack, hotter summers, extended droughts, increased wildfires.  All of this results in lower flows and warmer water which give shorter migration windows, fewer cool-water summer refuges, and reduced suitable rearing habitat.

Other threats exist: Hatchery summer steelhead, planted to boost sport angling, negatively impact the wild fish through competition and cross breeding which genetically weakens the resilience of the wild population. inadequate fish passage at Winchester Dam that delays upstream migration of adults and physically harms downstream smolts as they crash onto shallow bedrock after being swept over the lip of the dam.  Striped and Smallmouth Bass, invasive predators in the main stem, are proliferating.  Finally, the impact of catch and release angling cannot be overlooked.  We have declining runs and heavy angling pressure.  How often can a wild fish be caught and released and still have the reserves to spawn successfully?The sad irony of so many threats impacting the North Umpqua Summer Steelhead run is that all parties can point to something else and claim the problem is not theirs. In fact, all of these threats are impacting the fish and all must be addressed to recover a healthy wild population.

Instead of pointing fingers, everyone must do their part to bring back the summer steelhead.  The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must realign their management focus on reversing the degradation of decades of timber production and the associated road building.  The roads cause erosion problems by channeling silty runoff.  Valley bottom roads interrupt the movement of large wood to the streams and prevent the natural meandering of streams that generate critical side channel habitat.   Roads also interrupt groundwater flow through compaction of the prevalent shallow soils, forcing groundwater to the surface.  This robs the streams of the cool water that sustains the low summer flows.  The even aged plantations that replaced the old, complex forests during the clear-cutting era must be thinned.  Recent research has demonstrated that these young, overstocked plantations transpire much more water than the historic forests, again robbing the streams of the cold groundwater supply.  The streamflow record of Steamboat Creek shows a steady decline in low summer flow levels over the past twenty plus years, this must be reversed for the Frank and Jeanne Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary to succeed.

Congress must appropriate dedicated funding for the Forest Service and BLM to do this work.  Too often non-commercial thinning projects and road decommissioning are dropped from lack of resources.  Congress must also dedicate permanent resources to monitoring of the fish populations, habitat conditions, and environmental and water quality.  You cannot manage what you do not measure.  Today, one of the most significant monitoring project in the basin — annual juvenile snorkel surveys of Canton and Steamboat Creeks — is funded and directed by private individuals and organizations.  This should be the responsibility of the land managers.

The Oregon Department of Forestry must also rethink its priorities.  Riparian protection rules should not be based on levels that do no more harm, instead they need to be based on restoring the great harm done in the past.  They must also embrace the value of forests to mitigate climate change as well as promote adaption strategies to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has made some commendable tough decisions to protect the collapsing wild run of summer steelhead by closing the river to fishing.  Earlier they instituted emergency bubble closures and hoot-owl regulations due to low, warm water.  These were needed but were too little, too late. The emergency regulation process needs to be streamlined.  The surviving steelhead in the Steamboat watershed passed through the lower river in May and June.  Water temperature issues already existed but the emergency regulations did not go into effect until July and August.  With climate change impacts and collapsing runs ODFW needs a mindset sift, regulations should be nominally very conservative and only liberalized when monitoring indicates a healthy run.  This requires better monitoring and science based escapement goals aimed at rebuilding the fish runs.

ODFW must also give up on hatchery plants where wild runs exist.  The negative genetic influence on hatchery fish of wild fish is well documented.  The wild fish show much greater resilience to climate change than hatchery fish, promoting wild runs is the only path forward for salmon and steelhead to prosper in Oregon.State and local leaders must do their part as well setting ambitious climate change mitigation goals and advocating for our iconic salmon and steelhead runs, things that make Oregon Oregon.  Douglas County and the local cities promote the area as a Mecca for river recreation and outstanding fishing, they need to do their part to protect and restore the resource.

Each of us must do our part as well.  As anglers we must care more for the fish than the catching of the fish.  Hike along the river more, fish a bit less. When you hook a fish, celebrate and quit for the day.  Restrict yourself to more challenging, less effective methods: skated flies, upstream dries, relearn the joys of single hand rods.  Bring out your inner Lee Spencer and cut the points from your hooks — be satisfied with the boil or grab.  We must also all do our part to mitigate climate change: drive less, walk more, make your next vehicle electric, and promote climate change mitigation with your friends, neighbors, and elected leaders.  Vote for strong climate change mitigation as if your life depending on it — the life you know does.

Kirk BlaineBring Them Back Better

The North Umpqua Foundation Annual Auction

Our partner organization, The North Umpqua Foundation, cannot host its annual fundraising banquet due to COVID-19 restrictions.  They are organizing an online auction to help fund their projects: Fish Watch, scholarships, habitat restoration, wild fish advocacy, and education.  Please check out the auction catalog and register to participate here.

The bidding will run from November 8th – 13th.  There are lots of great items from guided fishing trips, rods, flies, books, wine, art, and more.  Every dollar spent will help the North Umpqua River, and as you are all aware, it needs lots of help right now.

Kirk BlaineThe North Umpqua Foundation Annual Auction

Fishermen, Conservationists Welcome Early Win in Case Over Outlaw Dam

Eugene – Steamboaters, WaterWatch of Oregon, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations yesterday welcomed a U.S. District Court decision denying a bid by Winchester Water Control District to dismiss a lawsuit over harm to protected Oregon Coast Coho salmon caused by the District’s dam in the North Umpqua River. Judge Karin J. Immergut ruled against the District’s claim that state agencies rather than a federal judge would more appropriately decide the question of harm to federally protected salmon. Judge Immergut also denied the District’s claim that the lawsuit was somehow too late, and supposedly violated the statute of limitations for legal action against harm or “take” of protected salmon. The groups’ challenge against the outlaw dam now proceeds.

The allied fishing and conservation organizations allege that the 130-year-old Winchester Dam – maintained to provide motorized flatwater boating exclusively for about 110 private landowners – causes damage to struggling salmon runs while impeding access to 160 miles of high quality habitat. The groups’ challenge deals specifically with the ongoing delay, injury, or killing of protected Coho by the dam’s outdated and poorly maintained fish ladder, by the District’s repeated unpermitted dam repair activities, and by the overwhelming number of leaks through the crumbling wood, concrete, and steel structure. The groups are represented by Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm, with local counsel from the Law Office of Karl G. Anuta PC.

Selected quotes from the decision:

P 13: “In sum, resolution of this case only requires a determination of a question within this Court’s competence: whether the Winchester Dam is causing take of Coast coho. That issue does not require expertise specific to an administrative body, and Plaintiffs may prove their case without reliance on state agency expertise or issues requiring uniform enforcement.” 

P 17: “[T]his Court finds there is no staleness concern because the take of Coast coho continues to occur. Additionally, any judgment from this Court would advance—not impede—finality given the ongoing uncertainty about the dam.”

Jim McCarthy is the Souther Oregon Program Director for WaterWatch of Oregon. To learn more about dams or barriers in southern Oregon contact Jim today.

Kirk BlaineFishermen, Conservationists Welcome Early Win in Case Over Outlaw Dam

Take Action for Columbia Wild Steelhead

Columbia Basin wild steelhead are in crisis. Steelhead counts at Bonneville Dam are unlike anything we have seen in nearly a century and are on the path to being the worst run ever recorded since counting began in 1938. The few fish that have returned are facing the second hottest water temperature trends in the past decade. The time to act is now.

Please join us by signing the Action Alert on Native Fish Society’s website asking Governors Brown and Inslee and the Washington and Oregon Commission members to take aggressive action immediately to ensure that as many wild fish as possible make it to their homewaters and successfully spawn.

CLICK HERE to Stand up for Columbia River Steelhead 

We’re strongly recommending these actions:

  1. Through 2021, close non-tribal commercial drift gill nets in the lower Columbia River and close or seriously curtail recreational fisheries (including catch and release) that target wild steelhead in the Columbia River mainstem and tributaries.
  2. Issue a disaster declaration.
  3. Establish and protect cold water refugia in Washington’s Columbia River tributaries.
  4. Extend Thermal Angling Sanctuary protections in Oregon until October 31 and extend the Deschutes sanctuary to cover 100% of the cold water plume.
  5. Establish and implement high temperature and low flow angling closure policies.
  6. Establish a suite of in-season adaptive management triggers and actions.
  7. Support and advocate for the removal of the four Snake River dams.

Speak up for wild steelhead and sign the action alert!

Article by Liz Perkin and J. Michelle Swope

Kirk BlaineTake Action for Columbia Wild Steelhead

River Democracy Act vital to headwater protection

It’s rare that an elected leader understands the invaluable role headwater streams play in ensuring biodiversity, clean water and vibrant communities, let alone sets out to protect them. But by including many of these vital Oregon waterways in the River Democracy Act, Sen. Ron Wyden has shown that he gets it. 

As two longtime residents of the North Umpqua watershed, temporary beneficiaries and stewards of its bounty, we have often witnessed how altering the upper portions of its watershed through forest management, roads and hydroelectric dams has imperiled the ecological, economic and cultural values that makes this place so special. The North Umpqua is in the early stages of a centuries long healing process from these activities, primarily through better forest management on public lands. Wild and Scenic designation has also helped.

While big rivers capture most of the headlines, small headwater streams comprise nearly 80% of the total stream network in Oregon. These vital waterways support the ecological health of rivers and the health of communities downstream. Small streams, including those that go dry in the summer, deliver wood and gravel, the essential building blocks for fish spawning and rearing habitat. Large wood instream helps reduce the impacts of flooding by storing and sorting sediment and gravel. Small streams support some of the highest diversity of plants, fish and wildlife in the state. They serve as important migration corridors for a number of species, big and small. And small streams and wetlands are where much of carbon recycling takes place in the landscape, which in turn feeds the web of life, including insects, frogs and salmon.

The River Democracy Act will protect an additional 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers flowing through public lands. As of now, the state has 2,173 miles designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers, but those are only a small fraction of Oregon’s incredible 110,994 miles of rivers and streams. Even with the addition of the proposed legislation, just 6% of our Oregon rivers on public lands will be protected as Wild and Scenic. Create Account

The health of our watersheds is dictated by the way we use land. In Oregon, many headwater streams on private lands are under threat from clear-cut logging, a vast road network, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. We’ve witnessed the destruction of headwaters by ill-conceived logging practices, on public and private lands, which takes generations to heal. This is why it is essential that we protect headwaters on public lands with large stream buffers, as proposed in the River Democracy Act. These shaded buffers of native vegetation will help keep our streams cool for miles downstream. This is particularly important in a warming climate and drought years. 

Thank you Wyden, for introducing the River Democracy Act of 2021. Your commitment to protecting Oregon’s small streams and headwaters is a demonstration that every stream matters. Without healthy headwaters, our large rivers, clean drinking water and habitat for fish and wildlife is unnecessarily placed at risk. 

Frank Moore served with distinction in World War II, served on the Fish and Wildlife Commission, founded the Steamboat Inn, and is a member of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. He lives in Glide.

Jeff Dose served in the Vietnam War as a Navy corpsman. He served as the fisheries program manager on the Umpqua National Forest for 24 years. He lives in Roseburg.

4Nv1l4dm1nRiver Democracy Act vital to headwater protection

Summer Update on Big Bend Pool

Big Bend Pool on Steamboat Creek

IMPORTANT NOTICE – From The North Umpqua Foundation

Due to the COVID-19 virus, the Big Bend Pool will be CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC THROUGH THE SUMMER 2021

The North Umpqua Foundation is committed to the FishWatch program and will be keeping a close eye on the pool. The current conditions of the Jack Creek Fire are making this more difficult.

As in the past, the Foundation plans on releasing monthly updates on our website and Facebook pages.

Kirk BlaineSummer Update on Big Bend Pool

Wildfires: Devastation or Opportunity?

Photo: Karl Konecny

Article by Jeff Dose

Restoring abundant runs of wild Pacific salmon and anadromous trout, that is, fish spawned in natural habitat from wild parents, to the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest has risen to the highest levels in the public’s consciousness. As a consequence, there is attention from the regions’ and nations’ top elected officials and a large expenditure of public and private funds in an effort to prevent extinction and restore some measure of historical abundance.  This attention is certainly true here, in the Umpqua River basin, where our fish runs support a multitude of recreational and commercial enterprises and where there is concern for some greatly diminished populations. 

The North Umpqua River has one of the most diverse populations of wild salmon and searun trout in coastal Oregon.  There exist six different races representing four species.  These are spring Chinook salmon, fall Chinook salmon, coho salmon, winter steelhead, summer steelhead, and searun cutthroat trout.  In addition to the wild populations, there are artificially propagated populations from hatcheries, principally Rock Creek hatchery, where large numbers of juvenile spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead are released into the North Umpqua.  The hatchery also produced coho salmon and winter steelhead to augment populations elsewhere in the Umpqua basin.    

The historically large and intense wildfires that started in early September of this year throughout western Oregon caused extraordinary losses to property and infrastructure.  Several fish hatcheries were impacted, Rock Creek hatchery along the North Umpqua River, was nearly completely destroyed by the Archie Creek Fire.  Reconstruction of this facility has been estimated to cost as much as $15 million.  Even before the Archie Creek Fire, Rock Creek was a compromised watershed with poor water quality.  High summer water temperatures necessitated construction and operation of a pumping station to draw water from the North Umpqua to allow survival of the adult and juvenile fish that were being held during the summer.  The impacts from the highly intense fire, as well as suppression actions and salvage logging, will further degrade the Rock Creek watershed for decades. Additionally, anticipated impacts from climate change will likely further retard or prevent meaningful watershed recovery.  As I describe below, there are some considerations that should be seriously considered as to whether that level of public expenditure is prudent.       

Pacific salmon, broadly defined to include sea-run trout, are a truly remarkable and successful group of animals.  During this time period, they have endured numerous global-scale climate changes – upheavals that caused the extinction of an untold numbers of other species – yet they persisted, albeit not always in the same locales.   Through evolutionary processes such as natural selection, salmon have been able to persist, and even thrive, by developing some rather unique and impressive characteristics and abilities which enhance their genetic diversity, including: 

  1.  the ability to “navigate” and migrate enormous distances;
  2. a very fine-tuned “homing” ability that allows them to return to their natal streams, while at the same time having sufficient straying capability to colonize new or previously lost habitats; 
  3. a life-history which results in the bulk of the population being at sea during the “catastrophic” natural disturbances (e.g., floods, wildfire, drought, etc.) which occur periodically within their freshwater habitat;
  4. the ability to dramatically change their kidney function so as to be able to move between fresh and salt water, which allows them to utilize the relatively rich marine environment for growth and the relatively safe freshwater environment for reproduction and initial rearing; and;
  5. the ability to evolve quickly to different environments by adopting life-history strategies, such as migration timing or body size, to a wide variety of different, localized freshwater environments – ranging from intermittent streams in southern California to alpine lakes near the continental divide in Idaho to frequently frozen rivers above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada. 

Managing salmon resources involves preventing overharvest, protecting and restoring habitat, managing hydro and other dams, and augmentation of wild populations with hatchery production.  While counter-intuitive, large-scale hatchery production does not usually produce more fish and can seriously reduce fitness of wild populations.  Most current hatchery practices, such as supplementing wild populations with hatchery-bred fish produced from artificial selection, rather than natural selection, are antithetical to the goal.  Additionally, hatchery production requires a large investment of funds that might be better spent on habitat acquisition and restoration, alternative energy sources, law enforcement or better research, monitoring and evaluation.  It is not uncommon for the return of one hatchery salmon to cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  The majority of which is paid by taxpayers and ratepayers, not from the sale of licenses and tags. 

Among other effects, genetic changes are contributing to the problem of salmon declines.  Most recent legitimate, peer reviewed research has shown significant reductions in wild salmon and steelhead production when hatchery fish are spawning with wild fish, even at fairly low levels (~10-15%) of hatchery fish.  

In addition to genetic effects from interbreeding, impacts to wild salmon begin as soon as the hatchery fish are released into the rivers and streams.  These potentially include disease transmission, competition, direct predation, altered migratory behavior, and altered predator survival and behavior.  In addition to these direct effects, the release of 10’s of thousands of hatchery reared fish (and their subsequent return) makes it nearly impossible to assess accurately the status of wild stocks.  This is further exacerbated during periods of high ocean productivity when hatchery fish survive (and return to spawn) at much higher rates than at other times.  The offspring from these pairings are unmarked and are essentially indistinguishable (without genetic analysis) from true wild stocks.  They are then usually counted, inappropriately, as wild. Despite the large body of scientific information that portrays the damage done, there has been little real change in the current hatchery/harvest paradigm.  Similarly, there has been very little change in land and water uses that affect salmon habitat.   

As to habitat “restoration,” most of what has been done to date is the uncoordinated treatment of some of the more obvious symptoms, while totally ignoring the causes – like widespread clearcutting and road building in forest watersheds, unrestricted livestock grazing, diversions of large amounts of water from stream channels for irrigation and domestic use, urban and industrial development on and adjacent to floodplains, and retention of damaging, outdated dams.  Successful, widespread restoration of wild salmon stocks will require a significant paradigm shift from current approaches.   Many researchers have concluded that for restoration programs to succeed, there must be a shift away from simplistic technofixes – such as hatcheries for low fish numbers or log structures for poor watershed conditions – to ecologically-based restoration of watershed processes.  

I’ll conclude with a quote from the book Salmon Without Rivers, (Lichatowich, 1999) in which he concluded:  

Today we are faced with a legacy of more than a century of salmon management based on a faulty set of assumptions.  Natural salmon habitats have been wrecked while we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on hatcheries, chasing the foolish dream of producing salmon without rivers.  Every independent scientific review of the current management system has called for a major overhaul, but bureaucratic salmon managers still cling to the status quo, defend their hatchery programs, and embrace without thinking the outmoded worldview from which hatcheries first emerged in 1872. [Page 219]

While I fully understand many citizens, particularly some avid anglers, have complete faith in hatchery programs and reject any attempt to reduce them.  Some even advocate for large increases. I believe them to be well-intentioned, but short-sighted.  While the Archie Creek fire caused wide-spread devastation, it also provides an opportunity. An opportunity to decommission the Rock Creek hatchery without the large expenditure of public funds that would be required to rebuild it.  I firmly believe that significant changes in land and water uses and cessation of hatchery inputs can eventually lead to more robust populations of all of our wild salmon and steelhead in the North Umpqua basin, as has happened with our wild winter steelhead after stopping hatchery production.

Kirk BlaineWildfires: Devastation or Opportunity?

Where Has All the Water Gone?

The low summer flow of steelhead streams can be a limiting factor in run size and health. There is only so much accessible habitat as streams shrink in late summer. As flow diminishes, water temperature tends to increase which can limit quality habitat as well which can greatly reduce survival of rearing juveniles. This condition can also limit over-summering habitat for adult summer steelhead and spring chinook, increasing pre-spawn mortality. North Umpqua steelhead typically spend their first two years in the watershed so must endure the limits of low summer flows twice before migrating to the Pacific Ocean. In many streams, the late summer flow seems to be reduced compared to historic records. Where has all the water gone?
Recent research has shown that common forest management activities have long-term impacts on stream flows. In a 2016 paper entitled “Summer stream flow deficits from regenerating Douglas-fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, USA” two researchers from Oregon State University. Timothy Perry and Julia Jones, analyzed a 60-year record of daily stream flow from eight paired-basin experiments in the Western Cascades. These were located in the Umpqua (Coyote Creek) and several Willamette (H.J Andrews) experimental watersheds.
These areas were previously old-growth (150-500 years old) Douglas fir and western hemlock stands, prior to treatments that converted them to early stage Douglas fir plantations through different treatments, e.g. clear-cutting and various thinnings. Each treated area had an adjacent untreated control area. They found that average daily stream flow in summer (July through September) in basins with 34 to 43 year-old plantations was 50% lower than the controls. These findings were irrespective of the type of treatment and continue to this day. These treatments are comparable to most managed forests in the region. The mechanism for these differences is that young Douglas fir have a higher rate of evapotranspiration, than older trees, particularly during the typical dry summers in our region. Commercial clear-cuts also tend to be replanted at an unnatural high density, which exacerbates the problem, more trees transpire more water.
It is assumed that when these plantations mature into a structurally complex forest (in another hundred years) the stream flows will return as the trees become more efficient at evapotranspiration. Unfortunately this is unlikely happen on commercial timberlands as they are managed on a 40 to 60 year harvest rotation. The young trees are clear-cut before they have a chance to mature.
As a consequence, reduced summer stream flow may limit aquatic habitat and exacerbate stream warming. Cumulatively across the region, forest management of this type is likely having adverse impacts on stream flow and water quality in most large river basins and is having impacts to all aquatic organisms, including native fish.
The road network constructed to harvest these forests has a major impact on streams as well. Increased runoff erosion, triggered landslides, and fish passage issues at road crossings are common problems with the road network in watersheds. Another less obvious problem is the interception of ground water. Ground water provides the majority of summer stream flow in many basins once the snow pack has melted and rain is absent. Ground water is also cold (typically around 40 degrees F) which can help reduce high summer water temperatures. A road can interrupt the natural flow of groundwater when it cuts across a slope in watersheds with shallow soil and a bedrock base. This occurs either from soil compaction forcing the groundwater to the surface on the upslope side of the road or when the road-cut is so deep in the side hill that it reaches bedrock, very common on steeper slopes. Once the ground water is on the surface it either quickly runs off, reaching the stream earlier in the season, if at all, or it warms, stagnates, and evaporates.
All of this diminishes low summer flows. The signs of ground water interception are surprisingly common. The upslope ditch will be wet or moist where there is no stream near by. The upslope side of the road will be particularly lush even supporting wetland plants. In extreme cases water will flow out of the ground onto the uphill road surface as the photograph shows.
Climate change is also predicted to reduce summer flows in Pacific Northwest streams as a result of lower snow pack and warmer summers. All of this sounds like doom and gloom for our wild steelhead but there may be a silver lining. Clear-cut harvests have largely stopped on federal land in our area. The plantations from past harvests are 30 to 80 years old, right in the “sweet” spot to transpire excess water. With proper management – management with the goal of restoring the historic, natural hydrologic processes – low summer flows and water temperatures should begin to improve. What does proper management look like? Primarily it is to leave the forest alone and allow it to develop old growth characteristics. Some thinning of over-stocked plantations and reintroduction of understory tree species in monoculture plantations may help in the short term but is typically not necessary. The dense road network that facilitated harvest is no longer needed and problem roads in the mid-slope and valley bottom should be decommissioned including deep sub-soiling to un-compact the base and contouring the road cuts to their natural slope. With time and proper management, the low summer flows should increase. All of us must insist the Forest Service and BLM manage their critical watersheds in this manner.
SteamboatersWhere Has All the Water Gone?