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Contractor Tom Ratnour works to restore Little Butte Creek to its historic channel through the Denman Wildlife Area Thursday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch

Back where it belongs

WHITE CITY — Biologist Jay Doino dodges backhoes and dump trucks as he makes his way toward a nothing patch of dirt and grass deep within the Denman Wildlife Area, a couple hundred yards away from the banks of Little Butte Creek.

In his mind, Doino fast-forwards to December when this oval impression in the ground will become a rare and important watery alcove where young coho salmon by the dozens will take refuge as Little Butte flows next to it and even back into it during a winter freshet.

"It will be amazing to stand here when the creek flows this way and see that happen," says Doino, a habitat biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Contractors are in the midst of a massive reconstruction of the lower reaches of this main Upper Rogue River tributary. They plan to return it to its original meandering path through the state-run wildlife area where construction crews steered the creek away more than 50 years ago.

When it's completed early next month, it will eliminate the straight, freeway-like artificial channel created in the 1950s which allowed water to move through lower Butte Creek and into the Rogue as fast as possible, without letting it filter into the creek's lowlands.

The newly reconstituted channel will be more like its original self, with water filtering into side-channels and newly constructed alcoves. Young coho and steelhead will be able to ride the ebbs and flows into these unique habitats critical for their protection from rushing flows.

"That's what they need and they just don't have it throughout the Rogue River basin," says Brian Barr, a biologist with the Ashland-based Geos Institute and a partner in the $700,000 rechanneling project.

"They need that off-channel habitat," Barr says. "It's a rare opportunity to be able to do a project like this."

Most floodplain areas at the base of creeks over time have been transformed into gravel pits, farmland and even cities.

The fact that Little Butte's floodplain is in the wildlife area means it can be restored without knocking heads with developments that need to get water out quickly to avoid flooding.

"It's all about floodplain," Doino says.

It certainly was in the 1950s, but for opposite reasons.

The original creek channel was a meandering S-curve through the wildlife area, a feature that was blamed for erosion there during a massive flood along the Rogue in 1955.

In the late 1950s, a 1.3-mile, straight-shot channel through the wildlife area was created by bulldozing a set of earthen berms that rise up on the creek's southern side. They block water flows to Denman fields during all but the highest of flood events.

The unnatural alignment creates high-velocity flows during winter storms and forces the creek to scour downward instead of feathering outward into the floodplain.

That poses habitat problems for young Rogue Basin coho, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The creek provided no refuge from the high flows and rumbling boulders.

Now, the same sort of heavy machinery used to trash the old creek is being used to restore it.

The original channel will be scoured down to bedrock then built up with 18 inches of boulders, cobbles and fine gravels that exist in healthy streams. Logs, root-wads and other woody debris will break up the flows and create complex habitat, while willows and other plantings will line the banks to provide erosion protection and, eventually, shade.

Once that's completed, the old berm will be breached in mid-September and flows will work their way down the new-old Little Butte reach.

"I expect to see some chinook in here in October," Doino says "I don't know if they'll be spawning in here, but over time they will."

Watching a creek rechanneling project is a lot like watching sausage made.

The heavy machinery digging holes and pushing dirt are generally associated with salmon habitat degradation, and they don't look like they're making the world even a tiny bit better for salmon.

"Especially that one," Doino says, pointing to a bulldozer ripping through a wall of dirt. "You can imagine a bulldozer going down and building that current channel."

Half the money for the $700,000 project is coming from an Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grant, Doino says. The remainder comes from a series of private, state, federal and local grants, he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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