Little Butte Creek Remeander
The lower reaches of Little Butte Creek were once among the most important salmon producing tributaries in the Rogue Basin. Around 1950, however, much of meandering Little Butte Creek was straightened, with disastrous consequences for native fish. Freeways for Fish worked directly with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, River Design Group, Inc., L & S Rock Products, Inc. and several other local partners to restore stream flow to one meandering reach of Little Butte Creek in the Denman Wildlife Area near Medford, Oregon.
- Little Butte Creek Restoration Project update
- Ecotrust brochure highlighting the Little Butte Creek Restoration Project
"Over the years, the combined stress from homes, agriculture, and invasive plants took their toll on lower Little Butte Creek. It resembled more of a ditch that a salmon stream. The recent remeandering and riparian restoration work along the creek near the confluence with the Rogue River was the perfect prescription. It is providing a huge boost for salmon, steelhead, and lamprey, water quality, and riparian-dependent birds. This project provides a great template for additional work on Little Butte and other valley bottom streams in Rogue."
-Jack Williams, Ph.D., Senior Scientist for Trout Unlimited
After a major flooding event in 1955, Little Butte Creek was transformed from a winding stretch of slow-moving creek to a narrow, high-velocity straightaway under the belief that water should be moved quickly from the area. Disconnected from its floodplain, this turbulent waterway provided no safe haven for fish during high-water events, and its steep, artificial berms provided little shade, leading to high summer water temperatures.
In 2007, a manager at the Denman Wildlife Area began to explore the possibility of reconnecting the creek to its meandering channel. Although Little Butte Creek was a shadow of its former self, it was still one of the Rogue River Valley’s most important salmon streams. Improvements to the creek would create critical new rearing and spawning habitat for Coho and Chinook, giving these important fish a population boost. But the impacts of stream restoration could extend even beyond wildlife habitat improvements, providing additional flood protection to the downstream communities of Gold Hill, Rogue River, and Grants Pass.
After several years of preparation, work on the project began in the summer of 2011. Freeways for Fish acted as the project manager, engaging construction and design firms, managing permitting, and overseeing the work itself. The project was staffed with almost 100% local contractors, amplifying the impact of the project on the local community.
I hired an employee who’d been laid off from his previous job. When I talked with him about wrapping up restoration work this season he said, ‘When you hired me, I was behind on my bills, and I want to let you know that I’m caught upon my bills, and I’m not apprehensive about the winter.”
- Bill Leavens, Owner, L&S Rock Products in Central Point
Over the next three months, crews excavated the new, old channel for Little Butte Creek, installed three riffles, constructed 13 large wood jams, and planted willows to give the system a jump start on creating complex habitat.
In addition to re-routing the water itself, Freeways for Fish dedicated substantial energy to stream bank restoration. Two unique techniques were used to mimic natural riparian areas:
- Vegetated soil lift
To create new habitat ideal for willows and other riparian plant populations, construction workers used coir logs and matting to create streamside native soil lifts that resist erosion before vegetation becomes established. The lifts were planted with willow shoots, and designed to encourage rapid and healthy vegetative growth.
- Toe wood/sod mat structures
Designed to slow water flow and create stable banks, workers also installed logs extending from the stream banks into the river at a slightly downstream angle. The portion of the logs resting on the stream banks were covered in sod mats salvaged from the excavation of the new channel. Sod mats encourage the growth of lush vegetation, while the wood structures protruding into the stream capture fine substrate and reinforce the channel edge.
After earthmoving was complete, the newly formed banks were planted with dozens of species of native trees and shrubs to minimize erosion, develop shade, create velocity refuge for fish during flood events, and provide food sources for juvenile fish.
Returning the channel to its former course added nearly half a mile to Little Butte Creek, and dramatically improved the quality of the habitat for native fish (particularly salmon and steelhead). Stream channel restoration also expanded the amount of floodplain area along the stream’s banks, which will help dampen the effects of flooding and make for better wildlife habitat.
The success of the Little Butte Creek project was felt by wildlife as well as members of the local community. Bill Leavens of L&S Rocks Products, a local firm that helped with channel reconstruction work, says it best: “There is a high degree of satisfaction in sitting up on equipment and seeing salmon swim by you in the channel you just reconstructed”