My friend and colleague Katy Pfannenstein sent me a photo July 11 of her first day working at Hancock Springs. In the photo, she and her co-worker, Robes Parrish, are liberally spattered with mud.
“We have A LOT of mud out here!” she wrote, and I could hear her laughter bubbling in my imagination.
Katy is a member of the Habitat Restoration team at Mid-Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (MCFWCO). She’s diving in this summer, more or less literally, on the Hancock Springs project that started back in 2001.
The spring in question was part of a dairy farm in the Methow River Valley in the early 1900s. The farmer built a structure over upwelling water to make a place for storing milk and keeping it cool. Dairy cattle enjoyed the spring water as well, trampling through the stream channel, which wound some 4,000 feet to empty into the Methow. They ate the vegetation on the banks, and their heavy hooves widened the unprotected stream to as much as 100 feet, turning it to a slow backwater that looked more like a pond than a creek.
Hancock Springs has multiple seeps feeding cold water into the Methow River. The seeps have remained consistent even as temperatures steadily rise and other water sources dry up. Fish reliant on cold water, like salmon and steelhead, urgently need water sources like these to survive. Hancock Springs was seen as a unique opportunity to completely restore a place to its historic form.
The Cascade Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group began work in 2001 with a culvert replacement, fencing and surface water-to-well irrigation conversion. In the mid-2000s, the Methow Conservancy began negotiating for what would eventually become a 180-acre easement, encompassing the whole stream channel from the source to the Methow and allowing further work to proceed.
In 2008, the Yakama Nation completed a pilot project to create spawning habitat, which later became a much more ambitious construction project in 2011. Together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they reconstructed the upper 1/4-mile of the stream from its source, while keeping the lower reaches untouched for a five-year effectiveness monitoring study.
The restored upper section was immediately used by steelhead and Chinook salmon, which the data showed to occur at extraordinary densities. Even bull trout, a fish species that only thrives in the coldest water, frequented Hancock Springs. It was clear that restoration of the full length of the stream would yield great benefits.
Robes designed both the 2011 restoration, and this most recent effort. The site, he said, “is a rare, rare system in the Upper Columbia Basin. Even Methow residents who have lived their whole lives here are unaware that a gin-clear, cold spring originates beneath the old milk barn and dumps up to 20 cfs (cubic feet per second) into the Methow a mile later.”
For two years, volunteers helped collect native wetland seeds which were sent to North Fork Native Plants in Rexburg, Idaho. They were grown and placed into 405 coconut fiber sod mats and trucked to the site. “It is key to have these for building banks,” said Katy, describing how the mats were laid along the new channel and used to support the fill added to reconstruct the streambanks.
A specialized off-road, remote-control “slinger” machine shot the topsoil up to 150 feet away to narrow the channel from 100 feet to 8 feet wide. Additional gravel and rock were also used to create ideal salmonid egg-laying and juvenile habitat. The new channel now has deep pools and riffles. It is over 75 percent longer, and has much faster flow to keep the streambed clean of fine silt.
For six weeks this summer, Robes, Katy and several local contractors worked hard to see Hancock Springs restored. It was “a back-breaking labor of love, literally,” said Robes, who added that he is glad to be back in the office, no longer waking up at 3 a.m. stressed about seeing the project through. He expressed gratitude for all the partners on the project, and especially for the support of landowners and the salmon recovery community.
Now it’s time to sit back and wait for the fish to come evaluate their efforts. When I visit the Methow this month, I’ll be watching for the now-winding path of the Hancock Springs’ stream glittering in the sun.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service.
For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit fws.gov.
Julia Pinnix is visitor services manager for Leavenworth Fisheries Complex.