Taking pulse of watershed

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate July 31, 2013 04:48 pm

Scott Bowman, left, and Jesse Nolan begin a stream habitat inventory on Siskiyou Fork by measuring more than 100 rocks.
Scott Bowman, left, and Jesse Nolan begin a stream habitat inventory on Siskiyou Fork by measuring more than 100 rocks. Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
Almost the entire Pacific Northwest was slammed by the Christmas flood of 1964. Seventeen people died in Oregon, and it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Del Norte County’s terrestrial connection to all points south was broken when the bridge over the Klamath River and most of the town of Klamath were wiped off the map. Farms in the Smith River floodplain were covered with several feet of silt.  

Far upstream on the Smith, the flood triggered the tremendous Bear Basin Butte landslide, which forever changed Siskiyou Fork, a major tributary to Middle Fork Smith River. Logging roads in Siskiyou Fork’s upper watershed, including the “Siskiyou Highway,” one of the first roads built in the forest, failed, pushing sediment into the creek.

Since the ’64 flood, Six Rivers National Forest has performed several stream habitat inventories to monitor the slow, natural recovery of the 18,000-acre watershed. These studies are regularly done, as funding allows, as part of the Forest Service’s role of caretaking for the public forests.

“It’s to keep tabs on what’s going on,” said Scott Bowman, survey leader for the Smith River Alliance, which has inventoried over 60 miles of creeks in partnership with Six Rivers over the last eight years. Bowman was fully decked in neoprene and snorkel gear during a recent survey of Siskiyou Fork.

The creek and the fish it holds seem to be in good shape. In a small pool about 40 feet long by 8 feet wide and 2 feet deep, the stream survey crew observed dozens of juvenile and some adult fish.

“We counted 86 fish in that little pool; that’s how productive these creeks are,” said Mike McCain, fisheries biologist with Six Rivers Gasquet District, also clad in his own form-fitting water gear.  

Mike McCain snorkels a pool of Siskiyou Fork to count fish and gauge the health of the tributary to the Smith River.
Mike McCain snorkels a pool of Siskiyou Fork to count fish and gauge the health of the tributary to the Smith River. Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
Like most things fishery biologists do, stream habitat inventories are highly data-driven processes.

First, the crew takes a sample of the streambed’s substrate, using a technique called the Wolman Pebble Count: 100 rock samples are measured for size while walking from bankfull to bankfull (the annual high water mark).

The randomized technique demands that whatever rock is touching the surveyor’s boot toe is the rock measured, whether that be sand or an 18-inch-wide boulder that much be plucked from the streambed.

Then the crew starts wading upstream, measuring the length and average width and depth of each pool and riffle, taking careful notes for each. Sometimes the pools are deep and the banks are steep, requiring the neoprene crew to swim or wade chest-deep upstream.

A subset of pools are snorkeled before treading through with measuring tape. Better to snorkel before startling the fish into hiding places.

Jesse Nolan, a fish biologist   for Smith River Alliance, sometimes does wintertime fish surveys to identify the distribution of coho salmon, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

But a stream habitat inventory “is not necessarily coho-centric,” Nolan said. “This is looking at an overall system: riparian, substrate, etcetera — it’s not just a fish dive.”

“One of the main purposes is long-term monitoring of fish habitat conditions and fish species distribution,” McCain said at his Gasquet office last week. Siskiyou Fork holds chinook salmon, steelhead trout, resident rainbow trout, and cutthroat trout. “It’s to determine the pulse or condition of the Smith.”

Monitoring the natural recovery of Siskiyou Fork from the landslide in ’64 and the failure of the “Siskiyou Highway” have provided a unique opportunity.

“When we get an opportunity like this to monitor natural events, it gives us a good understanding of what our place is in the bigger scheme, what our effects are, over and above the background of the naturally occurring events,” McCain said. It also provides an example of where not to build roads in the future. As it recovers, Siskiyou Fork has slowly become deeper, narrower, and has less fine sediment, which are signs of a healthy recovery — and also good for fish, McCain said.

Mike McCain snorkels a pool of Siskiyou Fork to count fish and gauge the health of the tributary to the Smith River.
Mike McCain snorkels a pool of Siskiyou Fork to count fish and gauge the health of the tributary to the Smith River. Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
Monitoring can also identify effects from abandoned mines, some dating back to the Civil War-era, which is one of the biggest concerns in some parts of the Smith basin, but not Siskiyou Fork.

Siskiyou Fork drains some of the highest peaks of the Siskiyou Mountains, including Bear Basin Butte, Broken Rib and Wounded Knee, creating cold water conditions conducive for fish.

In addition to finding 86 fish in a small pool, the survey crew saw positive signs through several salmon redds, the mounds of gravel that salmon build and then use to lay their eggs.

Surveying Siskiyou Fork was the last piece of work to be funded by the last four-year Resource Advisory Committee allocation, federal money that can be spent on a variety of national forest-related projects chosen at a local panel’s discretion. The RAC has repaired remote routes like Low Divide Road, hiking trails have been built and maintained and streams are inventoried.

This RAC grant was awarded to the Smith River Alliance and funded stream habitat surveys on almost all Middle Fork Smith River tributaries.  The Smith River Alliance was awarded another RAC grant eight years ago for tributaries of the South Fork Smith River. Over 60 miles of stream habitat inventories and fish surveys have been done over the last eight years through the partnership between the alliance and the Forest Service’s Smith River National Recreation Area.

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