The farmers who settled the area didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. But some water management practices that weren’t unusual decades ago are now recognized as being detrimental for fish and wildlife. This was the case on a mile-long reach of the Wallowa River in Northeastern Oregon. Years ago, farmers dug the underlying riverbed into a deep channel, creating steep riverbanks to protect nearby farmland from the risk of flood and soil erosion.
Unfortunately, the unintended result of this change was that water tended to rocket through the newly deepened, narrow passageway. The swift current carried away the fine gravel that had previously been ideal spawning ground for runs of wild salmon and steelhead. Without the shallow river meanders and protection of overhanging plants, the fish could no longer use what had once been a prime spawning ground.
All this was remedied with the help of Oregon Lottery dollars when a multi-agency team of engineers and biologists led by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) descended on 6 Ranch, just north of Enterprise, Oregon, to return this river section to its natural state. Using heavy equipment, the team dug a new, shallow channel with sweeping meanders to slow the river’s flow, providing the diverse currents and gravels that fish need for spawning.
Today Wallowa County benefits from improved salmon spawning habitat as well as restored wetlands and riparian areas. Native grasses and willows have been reestablished along the riverbed, providing vegetation to support insect species that in turn provide sustenance for the fish. In time, even more species should return, fully restoring this sensitive section of river habitat to its former natural state.