ENTIAT — A John Deere excavator picks up a 25-foot log, sticks it straight up into the air and then vibrates it about 18 feet into the shoreline of the Entiat River. The ground shakes hundreds of feet away.
The log will become a part of a man-made log jam that will catch debris floating down the river, causing the water to spread out into a floodplain and creating pools and other fish habitat, said Pete Cruickshank, Chelan County Natural Resources project manager.
“So, what they’re building is log jams that will make (the river) go back and forth,” Cruickshank said. “There are a lot of cool log structures that are just around the bank that are already completed and that will really make it wiggle.”
This is one out of six planned projects over two years to improve about 4.5 river miles of habitat, said Steve Kolk, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Wenatchee and Entiat subbasin liaison. Reclamation is the lead funder on four of those projects, which will cover 2.3 river miles and have:
- 89 log jam structures
- 1,000 feet of levees removed
- 5,180 feet of side channel enhanced
- 300 feet of new channels
- 32,293 riparian plants placed
It is a pretty big and ambitious project that took over 10 years of coordination to achieve, Kolk said. Chelan County Natural Resources Department, the Cascadia Conservation District and Yakama Nation are all helping to accomplish this work.
The Yakama Nation and Chelan County are the leads on two of the six projects, Kolk said.
The idea was put forth by the Bonneville Power Administration to see what kind of impact a bunch of restoration projects would have on salmon returns, he said.
“It is hard to detect how much benefit any individual project is having,” Kolk said. “So their idea was if we can do a whole bunch of work in a short period of time in a concentrated location, we should better be able to see the effect that work is having.”
Returns of species like spring chinook and steelhead, which are listed as federally endangered, are suffering on the Entiat River, said Chris Clemons, Yakama Nation habitat fisheries biologist. In 2018 only 46 breeding pairs of spring chinook returned to the Entiat River.
The biggest benefits for salmon will be the creation of side channels, floodplains, wetlands and woody debris where juvenile salmon can hide and grow big, Clemons said. Right now juvenile salmon are being flushed out into the Columbia River before they’re ready and forced to compete with warm-water predators like pikeminnow.
“The off-channel habitat is definitely where it is at,” he said. “When we have the off-channel habitat we’re seeing the juveniles winter in those areas.”
The river needs to be restored because it was altered by humans in the 20th century, Clemons said. People changed the flow of the river because of the logging industry, orchards and as a form of flood prevention.
“Back then the thought was: ‘Wood’s dangerous; wood shouldn’t be in rivers; we need to remove all the wood. It causes flooding. It causes degradation,’” he said. “Well, once the species (spring chinook and steelhead) got listed during the late 1990s, early 2000s, it was like, ‘Oh, this is actually what the species needs and we just took it all out and destroyed it.’”
The agencies are now taking out the levees that were placed there to prevent flooding and putting back wood debris, Clemons said. But the agencies are doing it in a way that will not raise the level of the river, he said. The Yakama Nation is building side channels as well that will compensate for the log jam structures.
It is incredible how quickly the work the agencies are doing is making an impact, said Cruickshank. As soon as Chelan County put in a few of its log jam structures it saw fish move into that habitat.
“We’re basically just driving posts down and then lacing in wood structures so that will help kick the creek, but it also helps build a fish condo,” Cruickshank said. “We’ve already seen some juveniles move into the stuff that we completed. Soon as you put the wood in, give it cover and dress it up, then they move right in.”