After years of transition, Elk Creek Project settling into new role

What to do with a dam and reservoir project lacking its dam and reservoir?
The Elk Creek Project needed a new master plan to address its new management missions. (Corps of Engineers photo)

The new Elk Creek master plan identifies methods of allowing public access to the area for recreation, while limiting users’ impacts on the environment. U.S. (Corps of Engineers photo)

The new Elk Creek master identifies methods of allowing public access to the area for recreation, while limiting users’ impacts on the environment. U.S. (Corps of Engineers photo)

By Scott Clemans, Public Affairs Office

If there’s any truth to the old adage about nothing being constant except change, then Portland District’s Elk Creek Project has been a model of constancy over the past 25 years.

The saga of what Congress in 1962 intended as the third dam and reservoir of the District’s Rogue River Basin Project has produced enough twists and turns to keep Medford Mail-Tribune reporter Mark Freeman almost fully employed – he’s authored over 150 stories on the subject.

But with a new management plan in place, things at Elk Creek may finally be settling down.

Portland District initiated the Elk Creek Project in 1971, with acquisition of project lands and relocation of some residents, roads and utilities.

Construction of the roller-compacted concrete dam itself started in 1986, but litigation by environmental groups concerned with potential effects on endangered fish species halted the project in 1988, leaving an incomplete dam 83 feet tall, one-third its designed height.With construction indefinitely stopped, the Corps – at the request of federal and state fish and wildlife agencies – developed plans to restore Elk Creek to a free-flowing creek while preserving most of the existing dam structure.

Demolition crews used nine explosive shots to blast a notch through the dam, opening the passage Aug. 17, 2008.  Meanwhile, other crews restored the stream channel to its original alignment and gradient, placed stream bank protection, planted native trees and shrubs for slope stability and erosion control, and built a training wall to maintain proper stream flow.

The environmental restoration work also included in-stream features such as rock weirs to maintain suitable water velocities for fish passage, and a series of riffles and pools to provide holding, feeding and spawning habitat.

The Corps diverted Elk Creek into its “new original” channel on Sept. 15, 2008, providing permanent passive fish passage for threatened salmon and other native fish.

“This is a moment about 10 years in the making,” said Assistant Project Engineer Capt. David Nishimura at the time.  “It marks the first time in almost 25 years that Elk Creek will run unimpeded into the Rogue River.”

Portland District now faced an unusual dilemma: What to do with a dam and reservoir project lacking its dam and reservoir?

“We completed a master plan for the area in 1987, anticipating a completed and fully operational dam and reservoir,” said Rogue River Basin Project Natural Resource Manager Justin Stegall.  “But the events of the previous 20 years had radically changed the needs, operations, opportunities and resources of the area.”

The Corps now manages the 3,502 acre Elk Creek project area primarily for fish and wildlife conservation and enhancement, water quality and low-density recreation, and needed a new master plan to reflect those missions.

“We completed an analysis of natural resource needs of the Elk Creek area, and hosted workshops in 2011 to receive input from federal, tribal, state and local agencies and the interested public,” said Gail Saldana, project manager for the master plan redevelopment effort.  “From that effort, a pretty strong consensus emerged as to what our new master plan should include.”

Among many improvements, the plan identified methods of allowing public access to the area for recreation, while limiting users’ impacts on the environment.

“The Elk Creek Project is about 3,500 acres of contiguous lower watershed habitat, which is rare to come by,” said Stegall.  “It represents about 10 percent of the native habitat in the upper Rogue watershed for coho salmon and spring and fall Chinook, plus it’s key oak savannah habitat for elk, deer and other upland game.  We want people to use the area, but in such a way as to protect that habitat.”

A number of small projects are underway or in the works in the area to meet that goal.  Bridges and roads are being improved or replaced; parking, picnic and restroom facilities are being developed; trails are being created to link developed sites; and “user-created” roads and trails are being blocked off – all with the intent of permitting low density and largely non-motorized recreation.

Most of the projects currently under construction should be complete in time for next summer’s recreation season, with others to follow next year.  The end result should be a project area with a tumultuous history beginning to settle into a new role as a destination – for fish and wildlife, and we humans who cherish them.