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Oxbow Conservation Area Tailings Restoration Project

Jan 12, 2017

A Warm Springs Tribe project in Oregon’s Upper Middle Fork John Day River

A restored, meandering river flows through the Oxbow Area of the Middle Fork John Day River. Photo courtesy Laura Gephart, CRITFC.

When we do something, it’s not only for the tribes; but for the local people up to where the fish migrate to. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs do a lot of work enhancing the salmon runs just for that purpose.

Bruce Jim

Warm Springs Fish and Wildlife Committee Member

A Moonscape of Mine Tailings

After gold was discovered in the Middle Fork John Day River in the 1860s, the waterway and the ecosystem it supports endured over a century of damage, degradation, and destruction. The greatest damage came from the dredge mining of a two-mile stretch of the river from 1939 to 1943. “After dredging, what was left on the floodplain was no topsoil; not vegetation; not trees for shade,” explains Pat McDowell, Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon. In total, around two hundred acres of floodplain were impacted, with soil and vegetation loss, straightened stream channels, and tailing piles that affected water quality. “It was a moonscape of mine tailings,” remembers Brian Cochran, the Oxbow Restoration Project Manager for CTWSO Fisheries.

Oxbow Conservation Area

Mining Damage in Idaho

Bucket line dredging for gold wreaked havoc on waterways throughout the West. Crooked River, near Elk City, Idaho, was dredged in the early 1900s and is today just a series of sharp turns constrained by tall mounds of dredge spoils. Restoration of the area is currently being planned by the Nez Perce Tribe and the US Forest Service.

Historical Damage

Up until the early 1900s, gold mining efforts in remote locations throughout the West were limited to panning or sluice mining that required sand and gravel to be dug up by hand. While still damaging, the effects tended to be limited and at a level that the ecosystem could usually recover from. This changed with the invention of mechanized means of gold mining that suddenly opened up a whole new scale of environmental impacts that overwhelmed the resilience of the environment to accommodate. Bucket dredging was an early steam-powered method that was used on the Middle Fork John Day River. A bucket dredger uses a rotating belt or wheel equipped with buckets to scoop up material from the riverbed for processing.

The scouring of the riverbed at this scale destroys aquatic ecosystems that take thousands of years to develop naturally. Additionally, the dredge spoils that are carried to the riverbanks alters the waterway and can contain mercury (which was used in gold mining), other heavy metals, and toxic chemicals that leach into the water.

Today the Clean Water Act forbids the discharge of any dredged materials into the waters of the United States unless authorized by a permit. This has effectively stopped bucket dredging for gold, however the West is now faced with the effects of this mining legacy: billions of dollars of remediation and restoration work to repair the damage that has already been done in places like the Middle Fork John Day River.

photo: A 1956 aerial photo of the damaged river lined with dredge spoils and sparse vegetation.

A River in Need of Help

The Warm Springs Tribes recognized that the river needed help. “We knew there was a problem out here, and it wasn’t anything that was going to recover itself except over thousands of years,” says Brian Cochran. The thinking was that by speeding up the river’s recovery, the summer steelhead, spring chinook salmon, Pacific lamprey, and bull trout that depended on the river would reap the benefits.

The Warm Springs Tribes were driven to restore the river out of a dedication to their culture and their responsibility to the generations to come. “Our children are our most valuable resource; and we want them to have what our elders passed on to us,” tells Warm Springs Tribal Councilmember Kirby Heath.

In 2001, using funding from Bonneville Power Administration, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs acquired the land and began developing an approach to determine how to go about reversing the damage and rebuilding a healthy river. In 2005, the Warm Springs Tribes partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop solutions for the site. “The Warm Springs Tribes’ goals for this land are to make it ecologically healthy and to have all the native animals and plants come back and be healthy,” explains Pat McDowell.

Over the next five years, a plan was developed to restore this most degraded portion of the upper Middle Fork John Day River. It would require extensive tree planting, seeding, installation of browse fencing, bio-engineering, and placement of large wood structures throughout the entire project area. The amount of work that needed to be done couldn’t be performed in a single year and was initially divided into three phases, with two more added as the project got underway.

With a plan ready, on-the-ground work began in 2011. After five years of work, the area is nearly unrecognizable. Nearly one and a half miles of new meandering channels were constructed. Construction crews moved 200,000 cubic yards of earth to cover the bare rock of the mine tailings and form new waterways. Crews planted 24,000 trees and dispersed 2,100 lbs. of seed over the project area. Fisheries and Wildlife crews moved tens of thousands of fish, amphibians, and other wildlife to safer locations prior to each project phase. All told, the project was made possible through the hard work and dedication of hundreds of individuals. “A large project like this really takes a village to do,” says Warm Springs Tribes Natural Resources Manager Bobby Brunoe.

Prior to 2011, about 13 percent of the chinook spawning that occurred in the Middle Fork John Day happened in the Oxbow area. Since 2011 when phase one began, that total has increased to 23.4 percent. A project of this scope, however, doesn’t just benefit fish. “If we do what we’re doing in the name of fish—and we can use that, maybe it’s a sneaky way of doing it, we can say it’s for the fish—but what else is it for?” asks Anna Stargel, the Oxbow Conservation Area Caretaker. “It’s all the riparian vegetation, it’s the wildlife—it’s the osprey and the deer and the mule deer that come down here, the elk that come to water down here—it’s all of the beautiful things that come along with that restoration. It’s all connected.”

Our children are our most valuable resource; and we want them to have what our elders passed on to us.
Kirby Heath

Fish and Wildlife Committee, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon

Protecting Existing Fish Populations

A fish salvage crew collecting lamprey out of the mud to be transported to safer locations on the site before work is done in that area. fish salvage efforts to rescue fish out of channels that were being removed as part of the project. Over the course of the project, a total of 12 days of fish salvage work yielded over 23,000 fish, frogs, mussels, and other animals which were transported to the new channel segments or to other safe areas around the property.

An aerial view of the completed project. Irrigation piping will be in place for several years to ensure the planted vegetation is established. Photo courtesy Warm Springs Fisheries.

Benefits to Target Salmon Species

The project seeks to restore hydraulic and ecosystem processes for riparian and instream habitats critical for Mid-Columbia summer steelhead, spring chinook salmon, Pacific lamprey, and bull trout. This multi-phased project is located in the heart of spring chinook salmon spawning, adult holding, and juvenile rearing. The property averaged 13% of spring chinook salmon spawning in this critical habitat zone of the MFJD watershed, but since Phase 1 has been completed in 2011, chinook spawning on the property has increased to and average 23.4% of the river total. This property is used by steelhead for both juvenile rearing and spawning in the river and five perennial tributaries within the property boundaries. The property has exceptional juvenile rearing potential, stemming from its location in the watershed and the six perennial tributaries entering the river within the property, but degraded habitat conditions limit current production. The Phase 5 Project restores connectivity to the river on Ruby Creek with channel construction and habitat enhancement of the lower 400-500 feet of the creek. Pacific lamprey juveniles are also commonly present in the river and tributaries throughout this property.

The project primary goal is to restore instream habitat conditions and structure for salmonid production, and set the stage for processes needed to sustain habitat features. This project seeks to greatly enhance instream habitat for salmonids in terms of rearing habitat, as this is the main identified bottleneck in population recovery. Pools with large wood structure, complex riffles, and targeted use of cold-water alcoves and spring channels will be the features to aid in rearing habitat for salmonids. Water temperature will also be buffered through an extensive vegetation plan, which promotes stream shading and appropriate channel widths on the constructed channel segments.

This project has a Monitoring and Maintenance Plan that extensively details goals and objectives with criteria for project success. This plan also has requirements for monitoring to continue following a 2-year flow event and a 5-year flow event, with some monitoring required annually.


Project Details

  • Property Mined for Gold 1939-1942 on over 200 acres
  • Tailings leveled in the mid-1970s
  • Confluences of Beaver, Ruby, Granite Boulder, and Butte Creeks affected by mining
  • Project split into five phases: 2011-2016
  • 5,800 feet of new river channel, 1,100 feet of new creek channels constructed
  • 5,700 feet of existing river channel enhanced by flow restoration and habitat improvements
  • Over 2,600 whole trees, plus additional slash utilized for habitat improvements, comprising at least 260 instream structures
  • Over 30,000 containerized plants and 13,000 cuttings planted
  • Project benefits spring chinook salmon, summer steelhead, and lamprey through greatly increased instream habitat structures, alcoves, spring channels, sided channels, reconnected floodplains, and deep pools.
  • Multiple Partners were involved with this project, including Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, OWEB, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Forest Service, NOAA Fisheries, and others.
A large project like this really takes a village to do.
Bobby Brunoe

Natural Resources Manager, Conf Warm Springs Tribe

Completed constructed river channel on Phase 3. The segment has a pool-riffle sequence, graded floodplain, transplanted sedges, boulders, planted containerized plants and grasses. Photo taken in fall of 2015.

Warm Springs Fisheries employee Pollyanna Lind takes a reading of top-layer logs on an engineered wood jam structure.