Bridge work at a glance
Editor's note: The project's distance from Leavenworth was incorrect in the original version of this story. The error has been corrected in this version.
MERRITT — A half-dozen spring chinook nosed against a gentle current in the shallow, crystal waters of Upper Nason Creek early this month just downstream of history in the making.
Their offspring will, for the first time in more than a century, have access to a wetland and five mountain streams cut off when the Great Northern Railroad built its track across Stevens Pass in 1893.
The line severed an oxbow from the mainstem creek at a point that is today just across Highway 2 from the Nason Creek Campground rest area, 42 miles northwest of Leavenworth.
Culverts placed under the railbed let some water through, but have been an obstacle to the spring chinook and steelhead that once spawned in the creek’s upper tributaries. Both species are now threatened.
During spring runoff, the culverts concentrated and intensified the waterflow, creating too strong a current for young fish. As the summer warmed and flow ebbed, the culverts were left high and dry, blocking passage entirely.
That will end next month with the completion of the Lower White Pine Project, a restoration effort considered to have the highest potential for benefitting chinook and steelhead in the Wenatchee River subbasin.
BNSF Railway and Chelan County are using nearly $4 million in federal funding to restore flow to the old oxbow and its surrounding 152 acres of wetland. This will make 73 additional acres of streams and wetlands accessible to fish at periods of high flow and nearly 7 acres at low flow.
“This is a historical project. A precedent-setting project, and one of the only salmon-recovery projects that involves the railroad,” said Mike Kaputa, natural resources director for Chelan County.
Using nearly $1 million in funding from the Bonneville Power Administration, the railroad has replaced the section of track that once spanned the culverts with a bridge that it will own and maintain.
Crews worked for a month driving 16 steel pilings, each 155 to 200 feet long, down through the track bed to support the 90-foot concrete spans of the new bridge.
The work had to be carefully timed, so train service would not be interrupted.
An average of 20 trains carrying freight and people roll over those tracks daily, including Amtrak on its daily run from Seattle to Chicago.
“This is a critical rail corridor,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said. “These projects take an extreme amount of planning, coordination and execution.”
With the bridge span in place, a Chelan County contract crew has excavated the earth from under the bridge, removed the culverts, and placed boulders along the new, under-bridge slopes. Work is expected to be finished next month, when temporary dams and silt barriers are removed and flow restored.
The resulting added habitat should produce more and stronger fish, better able to survive their epic migration to the Pacific Ocean to mature, and then the return trip to their home stream to spawn.
County biologists are hopeful that projects like this one on Nason Creek will boost available habitat to entice young fish to overwinter in their home tributaries, so they’re stronger and have a better chance of survival when they migrate to the ocean.
In early September, crews for Wenatchee contractor Hurst Construction were busy removing large “geofoam” blocks that had served as a track-side base that was topped with dirt to create a wider work area for crews and equipment.
Railroad crews were at work using special splicing machinery and sledge hammers to heat the rail sections white-hot and shape and join them together.
“It’s impressive to see these guys at work,” said Alan Schmidt, contracting officer for Chelan County Natural Resources, standing nearby. “It’s like good ol’ American ingenuity.”
Steven Seville, an engineer who works for the company that designed part of the project, agreed. “It was impressive to see the trains come through here this morning. The bridge is rock solid.”
The Lower White Pine Project is the first of three on Nason Creek that Chelan County hopes to coordinate in the coming years to open up more wetland upstream that is also blocked by the tracks.
No timeline yet exists for these proposed projects, Kaputa said, but they build on a county effort that includes barrier removal in 2007 and 2010 at two other points on Nason Creek, and a host of projects to restore side channels on the Wenatchee River.
Melonas said the railroad is open to additional projects.
“We’re pleased we were able to work closely with the state and county on this environmental habitat restoration,” Melonas said. “This will preserve wildlife opportunities and fish habitat and enhance the ecosystem… We’ll continue to discuss other projects in the future.”