Yuba restoration project aims to help salmon | TheUnion.com

Yuba restoration project aims to help salmon

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A local environmental stewardship organization has reported successful results from an experimental river restoration project conducted at the Lower Yuba River.

The Hammon Bar Riparian Enhancement Project — administered by the South Yuba River Citizens League on a 5-acre parcel of riverfront land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — is an attempt to restore the banks of the Yuba River to the condition that preceded the large-scale mining operations in the late 19th century and early 20th century that wrought enormous alterations on the landscape.

One of the major alterations was to the riparian habitat flanking the Lower Yuba River, defined as the 24-mile stretch that runs from Englebright Dam to the confluence with the Feather River. A riparian zone describes the interface between land and a river or stream.

During the days of hydraulic mining, an estimated 684 million cubic yards of sediment and material was washed away from the foothills and drifted down the Yuba River, creating large alluvial features while eradicating the vegetation that populated the river banks, said SYRCL Science Director Gary Reedy.

In 1906, the Yuba Dredge Company built huge machines capable of reprocessing the vast amount of sediment that had settled in the Yuba Goldfields — the large desolate swathe of land that characterizes the landscape of the Lower Yuba River.

The remnants of this unbridled environmental destruction are still palpable to anyone acquainted with the region.

Thus, SYRCL has recently, beginning in 2009, initiated efforts to rehabilitate the riparian zone along the river with the ultimate aim of providing adequate habitat to anadromous fish species, such as salmon and steelhead, Reedy said.

Gary Sprague, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said fish need trees for a variety of reasons — including temperature control provided by shade, cover from predators and food in the form of insects that live in the vegetation.

Moreover, trees that fall in the river create natural dams and pools in the river, which provide crucial habitat for the fish that often spawn in such areas, Sprauge said.

Thus, scientists concentrated on reintroducing four native species of trees along the riverside — three species of willow and, most importantly, cottonwood.

The major obstacle, Reedy said, was the insufficient substrate caused by the layers of sandy sediment that did not afford the roots of the four-tree species a foothold.

“It was hard in that environment to naturally grow seedlings,” Reedy said.

Thus, Reedy developed a scientific study, and like any good student of the scientific method, he formed a hypothesis.

Reedy said he discovered if he dug holes at a depth of 10 feet and placed cuttings, typically 12 feet long and 6 inches in diameter, in the holes, their root systems could gain purchase.

In 2011, with the permission of Western Aggregates LLC and Teichert Industries and the aid of an extensive volunteer force, Reedy and his associates began gathering cuttings from cottonwoods and willows in proximity to the determined site called Hammon Bar.

The first year, SYRCL forces planted about 1,600 cuttings in various locations throughout the project site, hopeful that 20 percent of the cuttings would survive.

Instead, 80 percent of the cuttings not only clung to life but flourished when a survey was conducted in 2012.

On the strength of the success of the initial planting, Reedy garnered more funds through a federal grant and planted another 5,000 cuttings in the same general area, this time using a large excavating machine equipped with an industrial post-hole digger called “The Stinger.”

The cuttings are not only flourishing but beginning to capture some logs flowing downstream, which in turn, creates the type of soil needed for the generation of vegetation, Reedy said. While the project was initially deemed a pilot, due to its experimental nature, Reedy is moving past that label and believes the project will serve as a model for other restoration efforts at other parts of the river.

“No one’s ever done it before,” said Caleb Dardick, SYRCL executive director. “State and federal agencies have modeled other efforts on this one.”

Sprague agreed.

“It’s a good project; this marks an improvement for fish habitat,” Sprague said, adding it could establish a scientific baseline upon which to build a pursuit of large more comprehensive projects.

SYRCL received another $28,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue to monitor the growth of the planted cuttings at the project site.

Reedy said he and other volunteers will begin to make another survey after the imminent run-off event in the spring.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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