It's not often that one comes across a large backhoe working alongside the main channel of a beautiful, trout-bearing waterway and the first word that comes to mind is "delicate."
But such was the case on Wednesday as Richfield resident Spence King of Erwin Excavation delicately hoisted one cottonwood tree after another from the banks of the Big Wood River and placed them alongside each other to create a massive engineered logjam in Bellevue's 12.57-acre Howard Preserve.
"He's like a magician," said Kathryn Goldman, project coordinator for the Wood River Land Trust.
Watching from just yards away on the river's bank, Goldman marveled as King dexterously inserted yet another felled cottonwood into the logjam. "You've got to be good with you're opposable thumb," she remarked. "It would be far more expensive for us without him."
The Wood River Land Trust contracted with local hydrologist Bruce Lium, the owner of American Water Resources in Hailey, to design the logjam and other portions of the project. Although most of the structure is made up of large cottonwood logs trucked in from various locations within the Wood River Valley, a certain amount of large angular rock from the nearby Minnie Moore Mine was also used to lock the trees in place.
The overall cost for the roughly $42,000 project, which King and several other contractors hired by the land trust completed between Tuesday and Thursday of this week, is being born by grants from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additional funding also came from private donors.
To conduct the work, the land trust had to obtain permits from the Idaho Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Idaho Department of Lands. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game was also a partner in reviewing the project.
Largely conceived of by the Wood River Land Trust, the overall purpose of the river enhancement project is to replicate the natural process of woody debris buildup in the Big Wood River. The project, which is the first of its kind in the Wood River Valley, represents a remarkable sea change from policies of the past.
In the Wood River Valley's early post-settlement years, the large accumulations of flood-deposited in-stream wood that so aptly gave the Big Wood River its name were viewed by many as a hindrance to development and something that should be removed.
In fact, historic photos taken during the valley's early development years show heavy equipment operating directly in the main river channel to root out the woody debris.
Times have changed, however, and today the importance of in-stream wood for a river's health is well known.
By mid-day Wednesday, some of the benefits of the project could already be seen, Goldman pointed out. Where King had pulled river gravel away and replaced it with cottonwood logs and angular rock, slow-moving water had already begun to collect. "We've got pool action already," Goldman said.
How the logjam will stand up and possibly benefit from future high springtime flows remains unclear for now. "It's going to be real interesting to see its impact on slowing high river flows," Goldman said.
The strategic placement of natural woody debris in the flood channel creates pool habitat and cover for fish, traps gravel fish need for spawning, promotes bank stabilization and introduces additional nutrients into the aquatic system, Goldman said.
"As a general rule, leaving wood in-stream is good," she said. "Not only for the fish, but the things that feed the fish."
With the engineered logjam finished, the only portion of the project left to complete on Thursday was the stabilization of a downstream logjam and the reconnecting of the floodplain to the river. The reconnection was completed by opening up a side channel through an old dike that cuts through the preserve.
For Goldman, seeing all her preparation finally come to fruition was perhaps the greatest reward on Wednesday.
"I'm just so excited," she said. "I'm like a little kid at Christmas."
The land trust, the city of Bellevue, the Howard family and others partnered in 2004 to protect what is the largest undeveloped riverfront property in Bellevue. The Howard Preserve's combination of cottonwood forest and wetlands provide valuable wildlife habitat near an urban area. Located west of downtown Bellevue, the city-owned Howard Preserve also provides opportunities for fishing and other recreational activities.