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Meacham Creek

An Oregon creek set free


  • Location: Umatilla County

A valuable partnership between the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation brought Meacham Creek back to where it started and “first-foods” back to the local tribes of the Columbia River Gorge.

Meacham Creek is a 37-mile tributary of the Umatilla River that used to meander freely across its floodplain, territory which now includes the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Its slow waters, frequent turns and overhanging branches made it the perfect habitat for salmon and other important wildlife. Salmon were so plentiful that the local people, including the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse tribes, made the twice-annual catch a central feature of their cultures as well as their diets. Along with elk, deer, roots and berries, salmon was considered an all-important “first food” of the native people. To the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Meacham Creek represented their ancestry and a bygone way of life..

Since the early 1900’s, a series of adjustments to the path of the creek were made to lessen the creek’s frequent natural flooding. This flooding made the railroads unsafe, inconvenient and threatened schedules in an era before air and road travel dominated.

The creek revisions began to slowly change the watershed’s natural environment, making it more difficult for spawning salmon to return upstream. The diminishing salmon population in turn put pressure on the species that fed on them. Negative impacts slowly spiraled up the food chain. Finally, after especially severe flooding in 1964, the railroad carved a deep trench at the base of a canyon wall and diverted Meacham Creek there, away from its natural course and any opportunity to again flood the train tracks. Although its water still flowed, Meacham Creek no longer supported salmon and other natural wildlife habitats..

All this changed recently when the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, working with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and partially funded by grants from the Oregon Lottery, undertook a project to restore Meacham Creek to its original aquatic path. Using aerial photos from 1939 as a guide, workers with heavy equipment reestablished the original waterway. Eventually the creek was diverted back to its former course, free to flow across its floodplain.

Today, spawning salmon have returned to the creek, along with native plant species and other wildlife. The local people, in turn, have been able to re-establish a healthy, first-foods diet, following the practices of their ancestors and a way of life thanks to Meacham Creek’s return to the wild.