Creek restoration project enters final phase

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are working on a stream bank and floodplain restoration project at the former Southern Cross Ranch on Catherine Creek. The project is part of a larger, four-phase restoration effort involving six properties along the creek.

A century of ranching has taken its toll on Catherine Creek in the Grande Ronde Valley.

The creek is home to three different species of threatened or endangered fish — including chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout — while at the same time providing irrigation for hay fields and cattle pastures. Over the years, portions of middle Catherine Creek were pinched off from its natural floodplain to make room for farms, resulting in a loss of habitat and increased erosion along the stream bank.

It’s a familiar refrain in Eastern Oregon, where the needs of agriculture tend to overlap with the needs of fish and wildlife. Faced with chronic flooding caused by erosion, several private landowners on Catherine Creek brought their concerns in 2010 to the Union County Soil and Water Conservation District. Together, they launched a collaborative restoration project to address longstanding issues on roughly four miles of creekside property upstream of Union.

This summer marks the fourth and final phase what’s become known as the Catherine Creek Complex, which includes an ambitious project by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on the former Southern Cross Ranch. Bulldozers and heavy machinery broke ground in November, carving out a maze of pools and side channels where salmon can move off the creek’s main stem to spawn. The tribes will also re-plant 44 acres of riparian vegetation to keep the water clean and cool.

Carl Scheeler, wildlife program manager for the CTUIR Department of Natural Resources, was involved in the tribes’ purchase of Southern Cross last year. He said the property provided their best opportunity to restore a critical stretch of Catherine Creek to its original form.

“It benefits three species of threatened fish,” Scheeler said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Western Rivers Conservancy initially purchased Southern Cross in 2013, holding on to the land until the tribes and Bonneville Power Administration could complete the transfer. Money for the deal came from the BPA through its Columbia Basin Fish Accords with the tribes.

Allen Childs, project biologist with the tribes, is leading work on the ground at Southern Cross. He said the goal is to reintroduce badly needed habitat diversity for both adult and juvenile fish that migrate up Catherine Creek, a tributary of the Grande Ronde River.

“It’s a combination floodplain and riparian restoration,” Childs said. “We’re reconstructing the main alignment, and reconnecting it to the floodplain.”

The creek at Southern Cross was pushed back into a single channel sometime around the mid-1930s, Childs said. Without the ability to spread out over a floodplain, the stream acts like a power flush during seasonal high flows, sweeping away gravel beds where adult salmon spawn. Juveniles don’t have any place to hold up and rest as they make their journey out to the Pacific Ocean.

Childs said they will quadruple the amount of habitat by reconnecting Catherine Creek to its floodplain at Southern Cross, giving fish at all life stages a better chance of survival. The tribes will plant in-stream boulders and log jams to create a variety of habitats for fish, and plant native vegetation along the stream such as cottonwoods, river birch, willows and red osier dogwood.

Construction is expected to cost just less than $2.1 million. That funding also comes from the BPA Fish Accords. Childs said they expect to finish in August.

Southern Cross is just one of six properties involved in the Catherine Creek Complex. Other phases of work have so far led to the construction of 25 new pools, nine alcoves, five new side channels and 20 acres of new riparian vegetation. In addition, The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Natural Resource Conservation Service also helped install 11,000 feet of new irrigation pipeline, allowing ranchers to remove four gravel push-up dams that had previously posed barriers to fish passage.

The Union SWCD is sponsoring the complex, with support from a number of local, state and federal partners. Kate Frenyea, district manager for the SWCD, said the complex has served as an effective model for bringing agriculture and fish interests together toward common solutions.

“There is a longstanding misconception that you either have agriculture or conservation,” Frenyea said. “There is a balance, and both are very much possible.”

Joe Smietana, restoration lead with the SWCD, agreed, commending everyone involved in the Catherine Creek Complex for their willingness to participate in voluntary conservation.

“Collaboration is king,” Smietana said. “I think we can all come together for a common benefit.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-9663-0825.

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