TALENT — An old slab of concrete and wood boards that diverted some of Wagner Creek into a ditch was one of those many proverbial paper cuts inflicted on wild salmon and steelhead eking out a living in the Bear Creek Basin.
Under most conditions, it blocked adult upstream migrants from three miles of new spawning grounds. And in critical hot summer periods, it blocked all juvenile salmon and steelhead desperately seeking cold-water refuges above Wagner Creek.
After a century of snubbing wild salmon, the Beeson-Robison Ditch diversion disappeared Thursday with a few quick whacks from a backhoe, and it's being replaced with a modern delivery system and the promise of easier access to more habitat.
While the removal of larger dams on the mainstem Rogue River garner the headlines, smaller projects like this one add to the synergy of salmon recovery, experts say.
"We've gotten rid of a lot of the bigger dams," said Alexis Brickner, fish-passage project manager for the Rogue River Watershed Council, which is overseeing the project. "But these small tributaries provide essential habitat, especially in summer.
"We call it death by 1,000 cuts," Brickner said.
The Beeson-Robison project is a coming-out party of sorts for the reconstituted watershed council, created by the merger of four smaller regional councils under one entity in 2016.
"This is a biggie, the biggest project we've done to date," said Brian Barr, the council's executive director.
The council has its eyes on removing two diversions next year on Salt Creek, a tributary of Little Butte Creek with seven identified fish-passage barriers. In 2019, the council hopes to remove and replace the Smith-Meyer-Roper diversion in Ashland Creek near Helman Street in city limits.
Like with the $120,000 Beeson-Robison project, the council will seek funding from public and private sources, as well as work with willing landowners, with assistance from state and federal agencies.
The Beeson-Robison diversion funnels 2.13 cubic feet per second of water to 18 landowners irrigating almost 370 acres of land with the oldest water right on Wagner Creek, records show.
It was identified as the third-most unfriendly diversion to wild salmon and steelhead left in the Bear Creek Basin, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife records.
The diversion was replaced with a new headgate 80 feet upstream of the old diversion, with new piping that sends water down to the old pipe and fish screen, which will allow any downstream juvenile fish to bypass the ditch, Brickner said.
A flow meter will be installed to ensure that ditch patrons get their full complement of water, Brickner said.
During Thursday's demolition, contractors discovered and relocated a half-dozen Pacific giant salamanders discovered in the rocky puddles, she said.
Over the next week, 115 feet of the creekbed upstream and immediately downstream of the diversion will be contoured with seven jump pools that will aid migrating fish when the creek returns to its free-flowing state there, Brickner said.
The project area is about 2.5 miles from the creek's confluence with Bear Creek, where hot summer flows send wild juvenile steelhead running up tributaries in search of cool water.
Upper Wagner Creek has been identified as a source of some of that cold water, but access was blocked when it was needed the most, Brickner said.
The project represents the latest snapshot in a collage of salmon-recovery efforts throughout the Rogue Basin.