Sometimes well meaning projects fail. They lose momentum, the people involved change, and the needs and perspectives of the general public evolve. Dams are a great example of this type of project. In the case of the West Fork of Little Bear Creek and the town of Troy, Idaho the time came and the people stepped up to remove the Dutch Flats Dam. This hundred-year old now-defunct dam was put in to provide an additional surface water resource for people in Troy. As of late the area had been abused as a dumping ground and the dam had not been used for water retention for decades.
These factors and the increasing presence of wild steelhead in the watershed came to the attention of hydrologists, biologists, the Latah Soil & Water Conservation District, the Bonneville Power Administration, the City of Troy, and others and a wonderful ecological restoration project and experiment emerged.
Dam Removal is contentious. It smells like the liberal environmental agenda to many and it smells like the doom of the Army Corps of Engineers to the feds. Both of these perspectives have relevance and grounds for concern, however, the physical reality is complex and multi-faceted. In the case of this small dam on a non-navigable waterway the project was a no-brainer. Remove a big chunk of concrete that currently serves no good purpose and restore 7 miles of spawning habitat for threatened Snake River Steelhead, an amazing long-distant migrant that unlike salmon, makes the journey to the Pacific multiple times during its life.
Watch this excellent educational video about the project and the removal process.
Our group of summer stewards met with the Latah Soil and Water Conservation District at the dam site to learn about the process and to contribute to the ongoing restoration effort of this watershed. We learned A LOT!
First, we learned where this small stream fits into the bigger picture: West Fork Little Bear Creek > Little Bear Creek > Big Bear Creek > Potlatch River > Clearwater River > Snake River > Columbia River > the PACIFIC OCEAN. Wow, what a journey!
We learned that like re-modeling homes, restoring (altering/changing) an ecosystem is complex and requires humility. In addition to the removal of the big slab of concrete, the stream channel needed to be re-dug. Much sooner than expected, the diggers hit bedrock, which forced them to focus on a shorter stretch of stream than initially planned. The very next season after the excavation, precipitation exceeded the average and the stream flooded, carving out its own pathway and moving debris and sediment. In the case of this project the engineers foresaw this possibility and constrained their channeling efforts to the main creek stem.
The good Lord created watersheds to find their own way, to make their own channels, to expand and contract over time. This necessitates a broad and gently sloped floodplain (built in flood control) which the engineers thoughtfully constructed. For this reason many streams and rivers in the Western U.S. and elsewhere are called “braided” systems.
Our work consisted of identifying native and non-native forbs (non-woody and non-grass plants), removing the non-natives, and pressing them into our plant press. We observed oxeye daisy, blanket flower, yarrow, a variety of clover species, Oregon sunflower, and Lewis’ flax. We then planted the floodplain with Missouri Goldenrod and Serviceberry to provide food for wildlife and more soil stability. We also learned about willow weaves, a technique for reducing stream bank erosion.
Thanks Latah Soil & Water Conservation District for a fantastic learning experience!!!
For more information on this Watershed and on Watershed Ecology in general, check-out last year’s Little Bear Field Trip Learning Reinforcement.