Bear Creek restoration now waits on Mother Nature

Craig Tuss strolls among the logs and root-wads precisely placed in soft sand along the newly sculpted banks of Bear Creek where it meets the Rogue River, and the one thing he knows for sure is it won't stay this way for long.

When fresh willow shoots sprout and their roots fortify the loose soil in ensuing years, these banks could become textbook examples on how to build a healthy, stable streamside riparian zone from scratch and with native plants.

Or, the fragile soils could be washed away in upcoming winter storms that threaten to alter or even undo hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of rehab work to this stretch of the Rogue exposed by the demolition of Gold Ray Dam.

"We put the pieces in place, and it's just waiting for its opportunity to work," says Tuss, who is overseeing the post-demolition restoration efforts. "It's all up to whether they can deal with what nature throws at it."

Nature will throw its first jab at the massive post-dam rehab project as early as this weekend when a stormfront is forecast to drench soils and swell streams.

Larger future storms and even minor flood events could be disastrous to Bear Creek's confluence with the Rogue as well as the mouths of Tolo and Kelly sloughs facing erosion threats for at least the next three winters while the bank-stabilizing structures take hold.

"It's still a very fragile situation," Tuss says. "We just need time, and time is either going to be on our side or not.

"At some point this winter, we'll have to just sit back and see what happens," he says.

Restoring new banks that have been underwater since the Teddy Roosevelt administration has been a major undertaking since the 106-year-old dam was removed last summer and the impounded water receded, creating a free-flowing stream there.

In its day, the dam backed up water into the two sloughs and in the main-stem Rogue up past the mouth of Bear Creek. The lower 1,000 feet of Bear Creek was like a stagnant extension of the reservoir.

The dam's demolition dropped lower Bear Creek by 5 feet and other downstream banks on the Rogue as much as 20 feet, leaving the vegetation line far from the water.

The now-rushing Rogue is carving a new channel for itself through the area, leaving new streambanks bare and ripe for erosion.

For stream rehabbers, it was like a fresh canvas and a palette full of all the brushes and colors needed to paint the perfect streambank.

And nowhere did the new portrait need creation than the mouth of Bear Creek.

The unstable banks are threatened by Bear Creek freshets. And both banks of the mouth could collapse under the full force of Rogue flows during even a 10-year flood — the kind of high-water event that has a 1-in-10 chance of happening any given year.

Armed with a $507,000 NOAA-Fisheries grant and some money left over from the federal stimulus grant used for dam-removal, the Corvallis-based River Design Group went to work.

Computer models helped design a new meander channel for Bear Creek through the newly exposed streambank. Specific-sized rocks were placed in the lower creek to absorb some of the energy of the rushing waters. Big root-wads and timbers — many salvaged from the original timber-crib Gold Ray Dam — were dug into the banks to strengthen loose soils ready for planting.

Grass seed planted in November has just begun sprouting, and fresh willow shoots are in, but not until spring will their soil-stabilizing roots fill in between the logs and root-wads.

"They're like Tinker Toys that haven't been fortified yet," Tuss says. "They could be washed out overnight."

Crews also added loose dirt to a long stretch of a high bank of the Rogue immediately downstream of Bear Creek's mouth.

"It's 270 feet of loose dirt. I know because I measured it," says John MacDiarmid, a fly-fisher and stream advocate.

MacDiarmid is afraid the soft dirt will slough and dirty the water throughout the fall and winter until it's gone, further muddying the Rogue that already has to remove tons of mud and silt held behind the dam since 1904.

"It's adding insult to injury," MacDiarmid says.

Tuss says rehabbers intentionally have ignored the main-stem Rogue banks for this winter, waiting instead for the river to find its way on its own. Plantings and other streamside work will begin in the spring, he says.

Until then, all eyes are on the refabricated mouth of Bear Creek.

Monitoring stations already have been set up to quantify how well vegetation grows and how violently the banks erode over the next several years of change.

The rehab work was all designed to mitigate for the environmental changes caused by removal of the dam and the draining of the sloughs and reservoir. The dam's former owner, Jackson County, will keep a close eye on that monitoring to ensure the restoration at the mouth of Bear Creek, and elsewhere, keeps hold.

"If we had an event that damages any of the mitigation we're responsible for, it would be our intention to evaluate it and repair it to whatever state we're required to," Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan says.

In the meantime, Tuss' fingers are crossed for a mild winter. He wants to see these willows and root-wads given a fighting chance to keep the newly constituted Bear Creek within itself and hopes the re-engineered mouth withstands its initial assaults from storms.

"This needs to be tested, but it doesn't need to be challenged now," Tuss says. "We'll see what Mother Nature throws at it."

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