- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - As a kid, Colin Hemphill remembers riding out on his family’s ranch between Pendleton and Pilot Rock to pick up driftwood littered around the pasture after a Birch Creek flood.

“You’d have about six inches of mud on top of your grass,” said Hemphill, 34, a fifth-generation farmer and cattle rancher. “It was a mess. Once the water left, it was basically a mudflat.”

It is not uncommon to see flooding on Birch Creek, where agricultural practices in some areas led to bank erosion and instability. That’s had a negative impact on both property owners and native steelhead runs.

Restoration work has been a staple on Birch Creek for decades as agencies seek a balance between healthy farms and fish. About 87 percent of the creek runs through private land south of Pendleton, rising at the base of the Blue Mountains and emptying into the Umatilla River near Rieth. It is the home waters of a third of all wild steelhead in the Umatilla Basin.

In 1989, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife put up fencing along the creek at Hemphill’s ranch to keep their cows from overgrazing the banks. ODFW also planted new riparian vegetation, including cottonwood trees, to provide more shade for fish while holding the stream in its bank during high flows.

The Umatilla Basin Watershed Council, in collaboration with partners, is now taking stock of past projects, as well as natural and unnatural functions along Birch Creek to come up with an action plan for future restoration.

Protecting federally listed steelhead is the primary ecological driver of the assessment, said watershed council director Jon Staldine, though solutions could benefit all landowners in the area.

Members of ODFW, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, U.S. Forest Service and Umatilla County Soil & Water Conservation District are all taking part in the assessment. The first community input meeting was Jan. 22 at the White Eagle Grange.

“There’s been a history of change along the watershed,” Staldine said. “The river’s trying to seek equilibrium, and we have to make it work with our current users.”

Birch Creek has been referred to as a sanctuary for wild steelhead and the watershed council estimates 70 percent of the basin’s salmonids use the creek at some point in their life cycle. Past restoration efforts include habitat rehabilitation, as well as removing abandoned or obsolete irrigation dams that block fish passage.

The assessment will identify where problems remain and help the agencies identify priorities. Research is funded by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Bonneville Power Administration through its 2008 fish accords with the tribes.

Staldine is optimistic the final action plan will address both the fish and flooding concerns. He hopes to have the assessment finished by summer and plan signed off by early 2016.

One particularly worrisome flood zone is along the creek’s east fork near the southern edge of Pilot Rock, a city of about 1,500 people. Water flows fast out of the canyon moving north, dropping quickly into a flat alluvial plain where the channel slows and deposits river rock and sediment.

The area is known as the “Miracle Mile,” because locals say it will take a miracle to solve the issue. There are about 15 landowners in the area, which makes it difficult to coordinate clearing the blockages.

Flooding comes dangerously close to town, creeping along the Pilot Rock community park and grade school. Public Works Director Steve Draper remembers 1993, when the park was under four or five of water.

Yet despite the danger, Draper said they haven’t yet found a solution.


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info

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