Wallowa River restoration plan would boost fish habitat, prevent erosion

Published on October 3, 2017 3:59PM

Paul Wahl/Chieftain
Most kokanee are considerably smaller than this specimen photographed in the Wallowa River in late September.

Paul Wahl/Chieftain Most kokanee are considerably smaller than this specimen photographed in the Wallowa River in late September.

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Million-dollar project could begin next fall

By Paul Wahl

Wallowa County Chieftain

Around the time the invasion of two-legged visitors to Wallowa County begin leaving, a red legless species arrived.

Kokanee salmon have been spawning in the Wallowa River for several weeks in large numbers.

Their presence could grow significantly with the implementation of the Upper Wallowa Restoration project. Increasing the amount of Kokanee and Bull Trout spawning grounds is one aspect of the plan, which was released in February.

The goal is to restore the alluvial fan where the river meets the lake, splitting it into multiple and braided channels as it enters the lake for fish habitat and assisting with erosion control on 1 1/2 miles of the river and West Fork Wallowa River.

Funding to implement the plan likely won’t be in place until next spring or summer, according to Matt King, who has been shepherding the project for its sponsor, Wallowa Resources, the past two years.

The project will also undergo a federal permit process required for stream restoration under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, King said.

In addition, a state Removal/Fill Permit issued by the Department of State Lands, will also be required.

The initial study cost $100,000. The project itself will cost a million dollars. Funding will come from public and private sources, according to King.

Conditions on the stretch of the river have been deteriorating for years. According to one report, to prevent flooding of Wallowa Lake Park, riprap was installed along portions of the stream bank. “This solution did not correct the flooding problem but shifted the stream bank erosion problem to the other side of the river,” the report said. “From the late ‘60s and onward, OPRD would bulldoze the river to dike the gravel deposits and deepen the channel.”

Things went along fairly well until July 18, 2002, when a flash flood raged out of the mountains destroying a Boy Scout mess hall and rerouting the West Fork of the Wallowa River, isolating two summer residences. Estimated damage was pegged at $1 million.

Thirty-two individuals narrowly escaped with their lives.

The first push to provide a longterm solution on the river began with a study in 2010. Later Oregon Parks and Recreation approached Wallowa Resources in a bid to move the project forward.

More study was completed in 2014-15 leading up to the final plan.

Fish habitat and erosion control are the highest priorities.

How much habitat will be expanded is unknown.

“There is a lot of variables associated with that,” said Jeff Yanke, ‎District Fish Biologist at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Enterprise.

While Kokanee and Bull Trout are mentioned specifically in the plan, there is a possibility other species may use the repurposed portion of the river in years to come.

“There has been a long-running interest in reintroducing sockeye salmon to Wallowa Lake,” Yanke said. “Fish passage at the dam is the lynchpin.”

Pending reconstruction of the Wallowa Dam would likely include a “fish ladder” that would allow additional species to enter the project area.

Yanke said while future sockeye use is possible, he called it “speculative.”

“Since sockeye spawn in lakes as well as rivers, it will all depend on the stock used and what the fish consider suitable habitat,” he said.

Controlling erosion is of particular concern to the owners of the Wallowa Lake Lodge.

James Monteith was the leader of a group of investors who purchased the lodge from private owners in 2016.

“We’ve been aware of erosion in the east channel as it goes through the lodge property and pondering what to do about it,” Monteith said.

He added that his group was also concerned about preserving the area as a draw for visitors, important to the future viability of the lodge.

Private property owners in the area were also brought into the planning process, King said.

A third benefit of the plan would include providing a closer look at fish habitat without interrupting the spawning process.

In an update of the Wallowa Lake Park Plan revealed recently by the state, one of the channels created would be used for that purpose.

Wallowa County Commissioners have also expressed support for the project.

Commissioner Susan Roberts said although concerns remain as to the cost and final responsibility for reconstruction of the bridge on Marina Lane remain, it appeared to be an acceptable plan.

Roberts said it would be pleasing for her personally to see the river restored.

“That would be the Wallowa River I remember as a child visiting the area,” Roberts said. “I’m excited.”

King said the bridge is jointly owned by ODOT and OPRD who are attempting to resolve future responsibility.


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