Seven out of ten Oregonians live within 20 miles of the banks of the Willamette River.
The McKenzie River Trust (MRT) understands the importance of the river to Oregonians, and decided to undertake a massive restoration effort in the Willamette floodplain.
“It truly is a living river,” said Joe Moll, executive director of the McKenzie River Trust. “Not just for salmon and bald eagles and frogs, but for people too.”
The site of the project is the 1,100-acre Green Island north of Eugene. A series of three gravel ponds were left over after decades of mining where the Willamette and McKenzie rivers meet. For five years, MRT has worked to turn these pits—which isolated fish and wildlife—into a more natural landscape with half a mile of connected floodplain habitat.
“It’s already paying off,” Moll said. Without the restoration, ponds would remain detached. “Today, with heavy rains in winter, the ponds fill up and empty much more naturally.”
The change is good news for fish and other wildlife, which need seasonal flooding to connect the landscape back to the larger Willamette river system. And in turn, the restoration adds to the natural fluidity—and meander—of Oregon’s most populated river.
Learn more: http://www.mckenzieriver.org
Dan Bell spent years planning, walking the banks and pouring over maps of the area. He knew it well. Until he didn’t.
“Pulling up to something so familiar—that I’ve seen hundreds of times—and finding myself disoriented because so much has shifted with the restoration was amazing,” he said. “It gave me goose bumps, in a good way, to be lost in a place I knew so well.”
In 2010, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased 1,270 acres of property where the Middle and Coast forks of the Willamette River join, east of Eugene. Since then, Bell, the Willamette Basin conservation director for TNC, and staff have been restoring and reconnecting historic river channels.
The Willamette Confluence project has 14 ponds that were a result of area gravel mining—and several ponds have now been reconnected to the river. Work involved 3D mapping of the riverbed, engineering and transformation on the ground. Earth moving equipment sculpted the space, habitat log jams were brought in (downed trees make great habitat for young fish) and over 200,000 trees and shrubs were planted.
The first fish survey was a testament to the work—population numbers began to rise. With such positive response here and at the MRT property just downstream, Bell sees the organizations as mentors to other groups doing similar work around the globe. “The immediate and obvious impact to the space is impressive,” Bell said. “My old maps are maps for what’s now under water. And that’s a great feeling.”
Rivers naturally meander, braid and move. Since the 1850s, changes to the Willamette River have confined it to distinct banks, disconnecting it from its natural floodplain and side channels. These connections are critical, as they help keep drinking water clean, help flood control and provide habitat for native fish and wildlife.
Gravel mining along the river has turned the traditional side channels into isolated pits and ponds. In the Willamette Basin alone, over 300 of these gravel pits exist. The Nature Conservancy and the McKenzie River Trust are restoring such sites—and they’re the first organizations nationwide to do so.
“Gravel pits from mining dot the landscape up and down the Willamette and many other Oregon rivers,” said Joe Moll, executive ELD director of the McKenzie River Trust. “Even so, very few organizations have begun to tackle the restoration. These projects are breaking new ground, and we’re collaborating and learning from each other.”