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Geologists go low-tech to restore Rogue River

Rogue Flyfishers Association awards state reclamationist with 'Golden Demon conservation honor (PDF)

More on the Rogue River Project from the Medford Mail Trubune

September 19, 2002

By Mark Freeman of the Medford Mail Tribune, reprinted with permission.

The willow bundles lining the bank of the upper Rogue River don’t look particularly strong. Each is just a few armfuls of branches lashed together with twine and plopped atop fresh, moist dirt.

But these bundles are part of a new $1 million arsenal that geologists are using to tame a part of the upper Rogue damaged by a flood in 1997, and also to reclaim the river’s famed Salmon Rock for salmon and the people who stalk them.

The willows will sprout new roots and provide stability on a streambank now getting fortified with huge rock piles and sunken cottonwood logs that, over time, will steer the river away from old gravel pits and back toward its original channel at the base of Lower Table Rock.

The New Year’s flood five years ago turned the river away from Table Rock and sent it crashing through a series of old aggregate pits before spilling back into its original channel between Gold Ray Dam and TouVelle State Park.

If left to its own devices, the river’s winter flows will continue blasting through more old pits, eventually drying up about a mile of prime riverbed that has channeled the Rogue since before the 1930s.

"If we can arrest this erosion now, it will help move the river from its current location to its historic channel past Salmon Rock," says Frank Schnitzer, a state geologist spearheading the project.

That’s big news for anglers and river-lovers such as Mike Ayres, one of dozens of people who regularly fished the Salmon Rock hole in pre-flood years.

Returning stream flows past Salmon Rock would transform the hole — now just a warm-water slough used only by juvenile salmon — back into a key holding spot for adult chinook and a prime fishing spot for anglers.

"It wasn’t just that we caught a lot of fish there," says Ayres of Medford. "To me, it was the aesthetics as much as anything — fishing right under the Table Rocks. It’ll be good to have that back."

When completed next year, the project will cost more than $1 million, with more than half of that coming from state funds. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board last month gave $283,000 toward the project, while the Oregon Department of Transportation is expected to kick in more than $220,000 next year.

The remainder will come from donations of equipment, time and material from various clubs, businesses and area landowners with an interest in getting the Rogue flowing again near Salmon Rock.

The actual rock is a house-sized piece of basalt that juts into the river from an underground rock formation that is most likely the base of Lower Table Rock. Decades, perhaps centuries, of flowing water carved a deep hole around the rock big enough to hide three truck-and-trailer rigs under water.

This deep, cool hole was the first main resting place for salmon once they traversed Gold Ray Dam more than two miles downstream. At one time, this made Salmon Rock so popular a chinook-fishing spot that some anglers would buy $35,000 jetboats just for the chance to fish there because walk-in access is closed and driftboat access is limited because there are no public ramps downstream of it.

But that all changed when flood water blasted through a 250-foot earthen berm and into a state-owned and abandoned gravel pit. The water then rammed through another berm before dumping back into the main channel downstream of Salmon Rock.

Since then, the river has gouged a bigger hole in the berm and built up a midstream island that cuts all flows toward Salmon Rock.

The rechanneled river dumps an estimated 100 tons of sediment annually into that stretch of the Rogue, according to a 2000 state assessment. Future floods also threaten to blast through more berms and farmland all the way to Kirtland Road, the assessment reported.

"We know that it’s bad, and we know that it would get worse if we didn’t do something about it," says Schnitzer, a reclamationist with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

Schnitzer helped devise a plan to reroute the river by installing huge piles of large rocks, called barbs, to slow down water flows and fortify the berm. Earth movers thickened the berm, and its slopes were either planted with willows or lined with the willow branch piles.

Eventually, the berm’s top will be replanted and together it will create 150 feet of new riparian vegetation.

Next year, with ODOT funding, Schnitzer hopes to dig out the island so winter high water will begin to channel back, eventually scouring a path that will carry the Rogue’s summer flows again past Salmon Rock.

"It’s hard to say how long it’s going to take," Schnitzer says. "But it probably will take more than one flood event, and more than a few winters."

But when it does, the salmon will return to Salmon Rock. And so will Ayres.

"I think most fishermen will want Salmon Rock back," says Ayres, who has volunteered on the project. "I know I do."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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