What was once a ditch surrounded by mine tailings is well on its way to being a fully restored habitat for salmon, steelhead and other wildlife.
The Oxbow Conservation Area was heavily mined in the late 1930s and ’40s and was left in a state of destruction.
Mounds of leftover mine tailings were bulldozed flat in the ’70s, and a straight, deep ditch was carved for the water to run through. The river was completely unconnected to the floodplain and provided no habitat for fish, according to Brian Cochran, a restoration ecologist with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon.
The more than $5.8 million dollar project consisted of five phases and began in 2011. Since then, a joint effort has removed mine tailings, restored vegetation and reshaped the river into a natural, productive ecosystem capable of supporting a variety of wildlife. The project has been a collaborative effort between the Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration Oregon, Watershed Enhancement Board, NOAA Fisheries, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Malheur National Forest, Oregon Departement of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Youth Conservation Core.
Using heavy equipment, the stream has been changed from a straight, deep, fast-flowing ditch into a slow, meandering body of water, where fish have a variety of habitats to grow and spawn. Besides rerouting the stream into a meandering path, old trees and slash have been placed at key points in the river to simulate log jams that provide critical habitat for aquatic species, according to Cochran.
Other wildlife has also moved back into the area. Beaver activity was apparent on the shorelines, and otters had been recently spotted enjoying the restored river.
An interpretive center and trail are planned for the area to better exhibit the new ecosystem, according to Cochran.
As part of the project, vegetation like willows, cottonwoods and chokecherries are also being planted. One particularly effective plant being reintroduced to this part of the river are torrent sedges, hardy tufts of grass give aquatic animals a sheltered habitat.
“Our goal is to have a fully shaded river corridor,” Cochran said.
The area is almost entirely surround by 8-foot high fences to keep animals like deer and elk from stripping the recovering vegetation bare. There is a sizable gap in the fences that allows smaller animals to pass through so as not to hinder their movements.
A number of alcoves, sheltered areas in the stream without currents, are scattered throughout the project area and were designed specifically to foster growth of juvenile fish.
Scott Turo, the habitat program leader for the Fisheries Department at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said the Bureau of Reclamation was key to getting the project done.
“The Bureau of Reclamation folks definitely deserve an extra thank you. There’s millions of dollars of behind the scenes stuff, and the river is connected.” Turo said. “... Thats a good feeling for all of us, and the salmon are out there and using it and were pleased about that.”
*A previous version of this story stated the project cost $11 million dollars, the project actually cost $5.8 million. Errors of fact and omission will be corrected promptly. To report a mistake call 541-575-0710