Scott Wright surveys a section Little Butte Creak in preparation to divert its present artificial channel to its historic channel. - Jamie Lusch

Project looks to return tributary to its original channel

WHITE CITY — The schematic drawings onthe desk of state biologist Jay Doino outline a rare opportunity to reclaim swaths of a flood plain for wild salmon in the Rogue River basin.

The drawings are detailed plans for returning an altered stretch of Little Butte Creek to the sinuous, slithery series of side-channels that disappeared 50 years ago when Denman Wildlife Area managers intentionally straightened the creek to ease flooding in nearby fields.

Diverting the creek back into its original S-shape will open rearing habitat for juvenile salmon by reconnecting it to those same fields, which can provide baby salmon respite from winter storms when they flood. The project could happen as early as 2011.

And who knows? The project might even coolthe creek's notoriously hot summer flows, openfresh spawning grounds for wild chinook salmon, and prepare Little Butte Creek to deal withclimate change better than other Rogue tributaries whose lower reaches already are developed.

"We're going to remove the artificial constraints and let the stream behave naturally," says Doino, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at the wildlife area in White City. "There's going to be more habitat and more natural habitat conditions, and that's just the way it used to be.

"Basically, we're setting this up for the future," he says.

State fish biologists now are finishing up the details on the rechanneling project, and have joined forces with an Ashland conservation group to raise the $500,000 needed to restore the old system by the summer of 2011.

Built in the 1950s, the current 1.3-mile, straight-shot channel through the wildlife area is fortified by a set of earthen berms that rise up on the creek's southern side, blocking 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 flood plain.

Plans are to break through the eastern part of the berm and use that dirt to block the 1950s channel and divert all the creek water to where it once flowed.

That would reconnect the creek to the flood plain, a key ingredient for how juvenile salmon — including wild Rogue coho salmon, which are listed as a federally threatened species — best survive flood events.

Juvenile salmon rearing in lower Little Butte Creek literally will ride the slow rise and drop of the water within the flood plain, instead of being flushed by the present artificial system.

"That's flood-plain connectivity, and it's something we've lost in a lot of our streams," Doino says. "You just don't get a chance to do stuff like this very often."

Often, creeks are rechanneled to clear flood-plain habitat for development. So restoring an old channel often means pushing water toward homes, strip malls and roads.

But this reach of Little Butte Creek runs solely over the state-owned and undeveloped wildlife area, making it a gem of a project, says manager Laura Tesler, of the ODFW's Restoration and Enhancement Program, which funded most of the planning efforts to date.

"It's our property," Tesler says. "If we were to allow that sucker to bang back and forth, that's fine.

"It's a showplace for others," she says. "And we should clean our own house first, right?"

Over time, the new channel should provide spawning habitat for wild fall chinook salmon, but flows likely will remain too low for spring chinook to take advantage of that gravel, Doino says.

Also, the lower and slower flows will have a better chance to come into contact with cooler groundwater, which could help ease the effects of climate change to this creek, says Brian Barr, habitat-restoration project manager for the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.

The center has been active in finding ways for river systems to respond to climate change more effectively, "and this just fits right in with some of the things we've been talking about," Barr says.

Scott Wright of Corvallis-based River Design Group this month is finishing surveying and mapping efforts for the project, and Doino plans next month to apply for a $75,000 grant from the Restoration and Enhancement Program, which has angling-license money set aside for fishery-enhancement projects.

That grant would pay for finishing the design and the start of construction, Doino says.

Plans call for the remaining money to come from other state and federal grant programs, as well as donations from private donors and conservation groups.

Barr says he will help Doino with administration and fundraising for the project, which will be built by a private contractor.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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