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Restoration work to remove sections of levees to begin in June posted on 06/01/2019

The Sandy River Watershed Council (SRWC) is preparing to break ground on a major habitat restoration project, located just downstream of the confluence of the Sandy and Salmon Rivers.

Restoration project actions will remove sections of levees built in the wake of historic 1964 floods, unlocking access to salmon habitat that has been hidden behind the levees for 55 years. Allowing the Sandy river to flow into the reconnected side channels and adding large log jams will both enhance habitat for fish and help disperse river energy during future floods.

“The floodplain where the Sandy and Salmon Rivers meet is one of the largest undeveloped areas remaining along the upper Sandy,” said Steve Wise, Sandy River Watershed Council Executive Director. “This area is a top priority in basin-wide restoration plans. Putting these side channels and floodplain areas back in reach for fish connects another link in the chain of healthy habitats that are boosting wild fish populations since Marmot dam was removed.”

The Sandy River supports populations of Chinook, Coho and steelhead that are listed threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Because of its free-flowing condition since dam removals began in 2007, the Sandy represents a wild salmon stronghold, and is a key to state and federal recovery strategies for wild fish in the Lower Columbia River.

The largest flood on record occurred in 1964, destroying roads, bridges and more than 150 homes across the upper Sandy. After the “Christmas flood” event, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built levees in an effort to return the river to its former channel and hold it in place. Despite these efforts intense floods occurred again in 1996 and 2011, with high flow events in several other years that caused erosion and damage to homes, sewer systems and roads.

While 1964 actions were intended to contain flooding, levees concentrate the river’s energy and erosion. Opening the levee allows the river to spread out during high water events and disperse river energy. It also provides refuge for young fish, who need to hide during severe floods, and can help reduce potential erosion and damage to roads, bridges, homes and other infrastructure.

“This is a crucial effort to enhance community resiliency and habitat for listed wild Salmon and Steelhead in the Sandy River,” said Rick Gruen, Manager of Clackamas County Parks and Forests. “The Parks and Forest Department owns land within the project area and is partnering with the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council and others on this very important and critical floodplain reconnection effort.”

Preparation for project construction and levee removal will begin in June. Major work along the floodplain will occur mainly between July 15 and September, a period when impacts are least likely on migrating wild salmon and steelhead. Replanting with native trees and plants will occur in late fall and winter.

Trails along the Sandy off Barlow Road may be temporarily closed during the restoration work. Project partners will replant impacted areas with native plants once log jams and re-connected channels are in place. Monitoring will measure how often water fills the restored channels, whether vegetation is recovering and potentially whether fish are using the new habitat. With previous experience as a guide, project partners anticipate that allowing the Sandy and its fish access to the floodplain will help the Sandy’s salmon populations.

"The restoration projects we've completed on the Salmon River are very similar, and those have delivered dramatic, positive results for wild salmon and steelhead," said Bruce Zoellick, Bureau of Land Management fish biologist. "The side channels this project will re-connect, and the log jams it will build, give wild fish access to habitat that they need. It's another major step toward restoring wild fish productivity in the Sandy.”

The Sandy-Salmon Floodplain Reconnection has drawn support from local, state and national sources. Funders include the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District, Portland Water Bureau Habitat Fund, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) National Coastal Resilience Fund.

NFWF, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, launched the NCRF in 2018 to support on-the-ground projects that engage communities and reduce their vulnerability to growing risks from coastal storms, sea-level rise, flooding, erosion, wildfires, drought and extreme weather through strengthening natural ecosystems that also benefit fish and wildlife.

The Sandy Floodplain Reconnection is one of 35 projects nationwide that received National Coastal Resilience Fund grants.

By Kara Caselas/MT

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