Project would reshape Powder River

March 12, 2007 11:00 pm

By MIKE FERGUSON

Mike McNamara wants to put the Sumpter Valley dredge tailings to work slowing down the Powder River and making it a cooler, friendlier home for fish and ducks in west Baker County.

The tailings may be sitting in piles near and along the river for now, but someday — if McNamara, a water program manager with the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and his partners can lay their hands on enough money — millions of cubic yards of tailings will be moved to create a new channel and floodplain for the five mile stretch of Powder River that flows through the Sumpter Valley, from Highway 7 east to Phillips Reservoir.

The project will take years and will cost millions of dollars, McNamara told Baker County Commissioners Wednesday.

But groups like Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited have already expressed their support. Restoring the river channel to a more sinewy, less straightforward shape will, among other things, improve habitat for fish and ducks, lower water temperature, improve riparian vegetation and help protect the storage capacity of Phillips Reservoir.

That final benefit would occur, McNamara said, because too many of the tailings have been dragged by the river and deposited into the reservoir, taking up space that could be used for water storage.

McNamara and Lorrie Harvey, the county's parks and recreation director, presented a synopsis for the proposed Sumpter Valley Dredge Tailings Stream and Floodplain Restoration project during commissioners' regular session Wednesday.

McNamara is hoping to duplicate a project creating a meander on the North Fork of John Day River in the Umatilla National Forest.

"They took streams that had been dredged for gold, rehabilitated the tailings, salvaged the topsoil and recreated the stream channel," he said. "Once we saw their success, we saw we could also be successful restoring the Sumpter Valley."

Surveys of the region show the river channel now takes a straight, narrow path through the tailings, with only pockets of floodplain. Each year, fast-moving water erodes sediment into the channel from the tailings and is transported downstream to the reservoir.

"Data from stream surveys show the channel is very poor fish habitat, with infrequent shallow pools," McNamara wrote in a report to commissioners. "The tailings area provides limited wildlife habitat, with remnant floodplain areas providing pockets of habitat for deer, elk and numerous other species."

Conditions for the stream and for wildlife will "vastly" improve, he said, by widening the floodplain corridor and designing a "dynamically stable" stream channel and floodplain.

Design of the project will accommodate existing and future proposed development, including roads and bridges, trails and the Sumpter Valley Railway. It will also include revegetation with native species and weed control.

Another group that must be consulted, McNamara said, is nearby irrigators with historic water rights.

Most of the land in the proposed project is owned by Baker County and the federal government, McNamara said. It's possible that privately-owned ground within the project boundaries can be accessed through conservation easements.

This spring, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is paying up to $25,000 for a LIDAR flight, for Light Detection and Ranging. The process will enable planners to create a detailed topographical and vegetation map of the region.

After that, backers will "knock on the door" of the Oregon Water Resources Board for a grant to start the first phase of the project, on the west side of the valley near Highway 7. That initial work could cost $1 million, McNamara estimated.

The project could take seven years to complete, and it may be a little longer than that before the meander comes back to that section of Powder River.

"The concept is to artificially add meanders and let nature take its course?" asked County Commission Chair Fred Warner Jr.

That's exactly right, McNamara responded. In some places, a new channel will be created; in others, the existing channel can be stabilized and put to use.

The groups already on board have friends, he said, who also might contribute toward the project.

"We think there's enough funding" to get the job done, he said.

Once the project is done, "it will create a meander" in the river, McNamara said. "The question will be how long it takes" to slow the Powder down through Sumpter Valley.