By Emily Davis
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘engineer’? For many, the term conjures an image of activity, of working hard to build or change something. An ecosystem engineer is a living thing that dramatically changes its surrounding environment, influencing habitat for many other critters along the way. Beavers are a classic example of an ecosystem engineer. Their dam-building floods valleys, transforming running streams into deep, still ponds and wetlands, often creating lush oases in the middle of otherwise arid lands. River restoration practitioners applaud beavers because they save us a lot of work.
But what if a plant—a sedentary being— could be an engineer? The humble torrent sedge (Carex nudata), a water-loving plant native to many rivers in Oregon and California, may be just such an unsung hero. In the Middle Fork John Day River, the torrent sedge has been quietly changing its landscape just as much as any busy beaver, but without all the hustle and bustle and fanfare.
Since the 1990s, the Middle Fork has been the focus of enormous and complex restoration efforts to repair the damage done by previous logging, gold dredging, and cattle grazing. In 2001, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs acquired the Forrest and Oxbow Conservation Areas on the Middle Fork, and promptly built fences to exclude cows from the river. Simply as a result of removing cattle grazing from the riverbanks, torrent sedge exploded across the landscape. And when that happened, it didn’t escape the notice of Dr. Patricia McDowell, from the University of Oregon’s Department of Geography.
McDowell, a geomorphologist, had been working on the Middle Fork for awhile, and had her eye on torrent sedge the whole time. For years, she wondered about its potential role in restoration. When PhD student Matthew Goslin expressed an interest in torrent sedge, a long-awaited research project was finally able to begin.
“The first time I saw torrent sedge in the Middle Fork, I just thought it was an incredibly beautiful plant, and I wanted to learn more about it,” says Goslin. “Lots of researchers focus on problems, on negative issues or what’s going wrong. I was really drawn to the idea of learning about this plant that seemed to be doing positive things [in the river].”
Until recently, fluvial geomorphology—the study of rivers, their shape and how they change—focused on physical processes like the movement of water and sediment. Plants were more or less ignored as agents of change. But that line of thinking is beginning to change. These days, researchers acknowledge plants as playing a role in changing river shapes, flow, erosion and sedimentation in complex ways. Goslin’s research aims to advance this idea that the plant-river relationship is reciprocal: that plants can alter the shape of the river just as the shape of the river can influence plant communities.
When it comes to standing up to the power of the river, torrent sedge is tough. The plants build small, impenetrable fortresses, called ‘tussocks,’ with their dense root systems. These root balls are so tenacious that McDowell and Goslin began imagining them as ‘organic boulders.’ These ‘organic boulders’ are immobile objects in the river that can withstand fast currents and redirect flows; but that also grow and reproduce, building islands as they do so. As a result, torrent sedge appears to be changing the shape of the river from a simple, single-thread channel to a complex multi-threaded channel, creating a rich diversity of habitat for fish and other creatures.
River restoration practitioners, like those working on the Oxbow Conservation Area, increasingly think of the unassuming torrent sedge as a positive contributor to the river landscape. Torrent sedge is now being transplanted into restoration projects, but with only a vague understanding of its potential function. Understanding how exactly it may change the river is essential for using it effectively in restoration work.
To do the very same channel-shaping work as this modest plant, human engineers require heavy machinery like excavators, hundreds of thousands of dollars, dozens of meetings, and detailed blueprints of how to reconfigure the river. But all the torrent sedge needs is time.
And, bonus feature: It does its work for free.
By Emily Davis
If you live on or near the Middle Fork John Day River (Middle Fork), you know that the amount of water in the river fluctuates widely throughout the year—from the roar of spring runoff to the quieter trickle of late summer. But did you know that measuring river flow is an important piece in the puzzle of salmon restoration? High flow measurements are key to understanding how restoration actions in the Middle Fork are affecting fish habitat, so being able to keep track of flow is important.
The North Fork John Day Watershed Council (NFJDWC) routinely takes river and stream flow measurements in the Middle Fork. NFJDWC staff usually take these flows during times of the year when it’s easy to wade in the river, such as the low-flow season of early fall. Because of the dangers of trying to wade the river when the water is high, the NFJDWC crew was unable to collect data during these times in the past. But why bother with taking flow measurements during high water, if we already have measurements during low water? Without these measurements year-round, we’re only seeing part of the picture of what river scientists call the ‘hydrograph’, the story of what a river does over the course of a year. It’s like putting together a quarter of a jigsaw puzzle and trying to infer what you might see on the rest of the puzzle, based on the corner you have in front of you.
Now, for the first time, the NFJDWC is able to get flow measurements during dangerous high-water events, and start putting together the rest of the puzzle. Using specialized equipment, and working with partners from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Malheur National Forest, NFJDWC staff successfully measured stream discharge this winter at flows that would have almost certainly knocked someone trying to use the traditional method right off their feet. The traditional method is simple: a researcher wades across the channel with a current velocity and depth meter, taking measurements every few feet. In the Middle Fork, at twenty cfs (cubic feet per second), the river slides lazily by and the water comes up to a researcher’s ankles; at seventy cfs, it becomes difficult to stay on your feet; and at several hundred cfs even the hardiest hydrologist would avoid stepping foot in the channel.
The new method follows the same principles. It takes a little more time, but is much safer at high water. Flows are measured with a sounding reel from a bridge near the usual flow measurement site. A sounding reel is a specialized cable on a winch with a crank. Weights are put on the end of the cable to keep it steady in the current; the cable can then be lowered into the water to measure depth. A current velocity meter can also be attached to the cable and used to measure velocity from the safety of the bridge.
The additional high flow measurements create a more complete picture of year-round flow in the Middle Fork. By understanding the changes the river undergoes during all seasons, we can get one step closer to understanding how to improve watershed health and support thriving fish populations.
North Fork John Day Watershed Council, Bureau of Reclamation, and Malheur National Forest staff
using a sounding reel to measure high flows in the Middle Fork John Day River
By Emily Davis
On September 4th 2014, a giggly and squirmy group of twenty-five 2nd and 3rd grade students from Prairie City loaded into a school bus and made the journey over Dixie Summit into the Middle Fork John Day Basin. There, Jeff Neal at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Kristen Coles at Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs led the kids on a Tour de Middle Fork, including a fish ladder at Bates State Park, a fish screen and a pool of adult Chinook salmon on the Middle Fork Forrest Conservation Area (MFFCA) and the newly completed Phase 3 Tailings Restoration Project on the Oxbow Conservation Area (OCA).
“The kids loved being outside,” said Coles. “They were really interested in the Chinook redds we saw when we walked down to the river. And of course they all wanted to play in the water and on the logs."
Neal told the kids that they were seeing the project from the beginning, and they could come back in ten years when they are teenagers and see how much bigger the plantings had grown and how much more the river would be shaded.
“In fifteen or twenty years, the management of the Middle Fork will be in the hands of these kids, so it’s important that we give them the chance to build a connection to this place now,” explained Emily Davis, current Monitoring Biologist for the Forrest and Oxbow Conservation Areas. “Even if they don’t understand every detail of the science or the restoration project, we can help nurture their curiosity by letting them explore.”
Researchers use low-cost techniques to produce high-resolution images of new river channel construction in the Oxbow Conservation Area
By Emily Davis
Aug 24, 2015
Researchers use low-cost techniques to produce high-resolution images of new river channel construction in the Oxbow Conservation Area
The Oxbow Conservation Area (OCA) on the Middle Fork John Day River (Middle Fork) has been the site of some ambitious and impressive river channel restoration projects in the last few years. The big question on everyone’s mind is: How can we monitor our restoration projects to see what kind of change takes place over time, and hopefully connect that to changes we see in fish populations? And how can we do it effectively, without expending too much money or time? Researchers at the University of Oregon think they may have the answer to this riddle. Using a creative approach and a unique assortment of tools, scientists from the McDowell Geomorphology Lab are using a technique that, in just an afternoon, can collect more data than an army of students could collect in a whole summer.
Decades of gold dredging and other channel straightening activities made this reach of the Middle Fork an unfriendly place for fish. The channel reconstruction project on the OCA took a straight, relatively uniform stretch of river and turned it into a more natural meandering channel with more deep pools. The hope of the channel reconstruction project was to provide the nooks, crannies, and diversity of habitat types that fish—especially juvenile salmon— need to rest, feed, and hide from predators.
So how has the river channel changed since the project was implemented? To find out, UO graduate students working in the McDowell Lab attached an ordinary digital camera to a heli-kite flown over a portion of the reconstructed channel during the course of an afternoon. A heli-kite is a deceptively simple device: just a small helium balloon with two ropes attached and a place to attach the digital camera. It can be easily operated by two people. With one person standing on either side of the river channel, each holding a rope attached to the heli-kite, and the helium balloon holding the camera overhead in the middle, the crew then walks down the stretch of river they are interested in analyzing. As the camera passes overhead of the channel, it snaps a multitude of overlapping images, about one every second. The images are later analyzed using special computer software that matches up the overlapping photos, creating a digital image of the structure of the riverbed. In essence, the software creates a 3-D ‘tour’ of the channel shape using the photos. “It’s analogous to what you might see if you went to a realtor’s website and got a 3-D tour of the inside of a house for sale,” says project leader Dr. Pat McDowell. “Just way more precise, of course.”
What can an interested researcher do with this 3-D tour of the riverbed? For one, it allows restoration practitioners to more easily track how their projects are changing the physical landscape over time. Such monitoring has historically relied on very time-intensive field methods, requiring lots of personnel and money to complete. Initial results from 2014 (photo 3) show increased channel bed complexityextensive restoration project. More channel bed complexity could mean improved aquatic habitat for fish and other critters in the Middle Fork. The heli-kite method is unique and simple—and it means monitoring the success trajectory of restoration at the Oxbow Conservation Area and elsewhere on the Middle Fork could get a whole lot easier in the future.
One of the most popular methods to measure salmon numbers in a watershed is to monitor spawning adults and their redds (nests). Mature Chinook salmon return each year to the Middle Fork John Day River during May and June. They spend the summer months seeking cool water while holding in deep pools. When the weather starts to cool in September they begin spawning by digging redds and laying their eggs in the gravel. These redds are easily observed and are a common method to measure the abundance of spawning salmon. Each year Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) fish biologists walk the Middle Fork John Day River to count redds to estimate the number of spawning adults (for details, see Bare et al. 2014).
Redd counts for the 2014 spawning season were impressive. ODFW biologists estimated that > 500 redds were constructed within the Middle Fork IMW area during 2014. This is a 350% increase from 2013 counts and the highest on record since 2000. Redd counts throughout the John Day River basin were similarly high.
The detection of this high abundance of redds demonstrate the potential for salmon in the Middle Fork John Day River. However, our previous data has shown that high abundance of redds does not directly translate into more juvenile offspring, suggesting that the freshwater environment in the Middle Fork is limiting the potential for increasing the salmon population. Summer water temperatures in the Middle Fork have also killed many adult salmon in 2007 and 2013 resulting in very low redd counts for those years. The inability of the freshwater environment to produce more offspring despite high numbers of spawning adults and their deposited eggs is a central reason for continued restoration actions within the Middle Fork IMW.
LONG CREEK, OR. – The North Fork John Day Watershed Council’s (NFJDWSC) intensive monitoring efforts on the Middle Fork of the John Day River have collected an invasive species, previously un-recorded in eastern Oregon or the John Day River system. The “European ear snail” was collected by NFJDWC Project Coordinator, Valeen Madden, on September 24, 2014 in a drift net during regular macroinvertebrate monitoring activities on the Middle Fork John Day River. The European ear snail was positively identified in the drift net sample by Rithron Laboratories of Missoula, MT.
European ear snails (Radix auricularia) are in the family of lymnaeid snails which are scrapers and gatherers. They are native to both Europe and Asia. The species generally grow to about 15 mm in height and 13 mm in width. The mantle has dark spots along its edge and 4 to 5 whorls in the shell. The snails generally prefer fresh water lakes and slow moving rivers. Ear snails feed on detritus, algae, and sand. Their common name is derived from the “ear” shaped shell in which they live.
The European ear snail is not considered a “noxious” species, only an invasive species. That indicates that the snail is exotic to North America, and it is increasing its population density, but it is not outcompeting or having any detrimental effect on native species in the lakes and rivers where it is found. The nearest prior discovery to the west was in Lake Billy Chinook in central Oregon and to the east in Idaho’s Snake River and Owyhee drainages. Significant populations occur in southwestern Oregon.
The NFJDWC will seek additional funding to search upstream and downstream from the capture site to determine the level of prevalence of the population. Additional investigation by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Invasive species coordinator will seek to determine the source of the new species. Elaine Eisenbraun, Executive Director of the NFJDWSC, stated, “Rivers are such a dynamic element of our environment. It is important to keep an eye on the changes that take place naturally and as a result of human activity. Our staff is working diligently to gather relevant information about the health and constant changes in the waterways that we monitor. It is a tribute to the diligent work of our monitoring staff that their efforts revealed a critical change in the system biota.”
For more information:
Elaine Eisenbraun, Executive Director
North Fork John Day Watershed Council
For more information about the European ear snail, visit:
Additional links about European ear snail discovery:
Since 2010 samples of insects living in the water (aquatic macroinvertebrates) have been collected at 15 locations in the Middle Fork John Day IMW by the North Fork John Day Watershed Council. Sample locations include sites that have had active restoration and locations that have not had any restoration activity. After collection, samples are sent to a lab where macroinvertebrates are identified and classified. Certain macroinvertebrates are only found in extremely healthy streams, while others are signs of poor water quality or disturbance. This data can be used to assess the ”biotic integrity,” or health, of the stream ecosystem.
In 2014, Washington State University Tri-Cities graduate student Robin Henderson began analyzing three years of macroinvertebrate data from the Middle Fork John Day River IMW and the South Fork John Day River. Robin tested different models of biotic integrity for accuracy in prediction and then used those results to assess if restoration has improved the health in the Middle Fork John Day River. Robin’s initial analysis produced a highly accurate predictive model of biotic integrity. Her modeling results indicate macroinvertebrates respond to variables related to forest health and integrity, land use, habitat fragmentation and the riparian buffer zone, confirming that restoration activities implemented in the Middle Fork John Day river affect the biotic integrity of the watershed, at least in the short term. Supplementary data collection and additional analysis is needed to understand the longer term biological response.
Macroinvertebrate collection will continue for several years and Robin’s model will be used again to determine if restoration activities have increased biotic integrity. Further research has also been proposed to characterize between-year variability of biotic integrity and to determine the regional climate drivers which may impact the biotic integrity of regional streams.
For more detailed information on Robin’s research refer to the following resources…
Henderson, Robin M. Measuring the Biotic Integrity of Stream Ecosystems with Restoration. MS Thesis. Washington State University, Richland. 2014.
Henderson, Robin M. and James R. Pratt. Measuring the Biotic Integrity of Stream Ecosystems with Restoration. Washington State University Academic Showcase. 2014.
A total of 95 temperature data loggers were deployed in the Middle Fork John Day River IMW area in 2014. The North Fork John Day Watershed Council (NFJDWC) (http://nfjdwc.org/) deploys and maintains 43 of the loggers and the remainder are deployed and maintained by various IMW partners, including the Warm Springs Tribe and The Nature Conservancy. All temperature logger data is shared with and managed by the NFJDWC.
Water temperature is measured every hour from approximately late April through November. The goal of collecting water temperature data is to identify tributaries that are water temperature limited and may be candidates for restoration activities.
In addition, the NFJDWC deploys 10 “level loggers” which, in addition to measuring temperature, measure water pressure above the logger. Water pressure measurements, coupled with flow measurements taken at each “level logger” site, and further analysis, allow the NFJDWC to identify how each tributary contributes to the river system in both volume and water quality/temperature.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) is monitoring fish population metrics for wild summer steelhead and wild spring Chinook salmon to evaluate population level fish responses to restoration activities. As part of this monitoring juvenile steelhead and spring Chinook salmon are tagged using passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags at various locations throughout the Middle Fork John Day Intensively Monitored Watershed (MFJD IMW). Among other applications, PIT tag detections are used in the MFJD IMW to estimate juvenile survival and productivity, and to detect adult returns (from fish that were tagged as juveniles). PIT-tagged fish can be detected in the MFJD at an array of antennas located near the mouth of Mosquito Creek.
This winter, ODFW brought the Middle Fork PIT-tag antennae array on-line through PTAGIS, a regional data storage/sharing system for PIT-tag associated data in the Columbia River Basin. By querying the PTAGIS website (http://www.ptagis.org/home) IMW investigators, other PIT-tagging programs in the Columbia River Basin, and interested public can view all detections at the Middle Fork PIT-tag array, referenced as detection site MJ1. Eleven adult steelhead and 28 adult spring Chinook were detected at the Middle Fork array during the 2013 spawning season.
The figure below is a map showing the location and arrangement of antenna at the Middle Fork John Day Array, as well as the location of two more antenna located in Bates State Park.
Oregon State University professor and IMW investigator, John Selker, and his students are using state-of-the-art temperature monitoring techniques on restoration properties in the Middle Fork John Day River. From August 1-8, 2013, a section of river on the Warm Springs Tribes’ Oxbow Conservation Area was monitored using a large-scale DTS (distributed temperature sensing) installation. The DTS installation consisted of fiber optic cables placed in the thalweg (deepest part of the riverbed) through which high-resolution temperature data was recorded at precise temporal and spatial scales.
Preliminary results from DTS temperature monitoring on the Oxbow Conservation Area reveal an observable sustained drop in stream temperature downstream of the Granite Boulder Creek redirection and stream channel reconstruction restoration area. This temperature drop was apparent throughout the day, although it was most pronounced during peak midday stream temperatures
The following figure shows the change in watertemperature over time and distance for a section of the Middle Fork John Day River on the Oxbow Conservation Area.