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EWEB Commissioners, Eugene City Council Members Tour McKenzie River Restoration Projects

June 07, 2022

EWEB Commissioner John Barofsky gives a thumbs up from a drift boat on the McKenzie River

EWEB Commissioners joined Eugene City Council members and local leaders for a tour of McKenzie River restoration projects, coordinated by EWEB’s Source Water Protection team and our amazing collaborators at McKenzie Watershed Council (MWC), McKenzie River Trust (MRT), and the Willamette National Forest. 

The tour focused on the coordinated response to the Holiday Farm Fire, emphasizing the effectiveness of large-scale floodplain enhancement projects for mitigating the impacts of sedimentation and increasing water temperatures. 

Tour highlights included stops at Finn Rock Reach and the McKenzie River/South Fork of the McKenzie confluence. At these sites, EWEB, Willamette National Forest, McKenzie River Trust and McKenzie Watershed Council have installed massive projects aiming to restore the river to “Stage 0” conditions, referring to rivers’ natural tendencies to meander throughout a valley floor, to flood wetlands, to send water below the soils in some places (called “hyporheic flow”), and to slow down flows behind obstructions like logjams. 

Rivers throughout the world have lost these natural conditions due to pressures from development, as we have altered and managed rivers to protect riverside infrastructure like roads and homes, and due to logging and mining. When the rivers lose their connection to the floodplain and are forced into a single channel, this creates a "firehose effect." The water loses the ability to spread out into the floodplain where the water slows down and drops out sediment and contaminants.  Instead, the water flows through the channel at high speeds, carrying sediment and potential contaminants downstream where they can have huge impacts on personal property and infrastructure like roads and our water treatment plant. 

By restoring Stage 0 floodplains throughout the McKenzie watershed, EWEB and our partners are restoring river and floodplain functionality to be a first line of defense against threats to drinking water quality. A healthier river can also slow down and store water/larger flow events, provide a haven for wildlife during fire event, and buffer metals, sediment and nutrient loads, and hazardous materials – reducing the work required of our treatment facility. 

These projects also create new habitat for endangered salmon, bull trout, Pacific lamprey, and other species, empowering our watershed to protect itself against environmental stressors. In fact, in the first seasons after these projects were completed, redd (salmon nest) counts increased by as much as 20-fold! 

“Thanks to all the people who are doing this incredible work, we are restoring and improving the watershed from hundreds of years of human impact,” EWEB Commissioner Sonya Carlson said after the tour. “Getting as close as we can to the natural flow of the waterway clearly has meaningful impact on the native species, our resiliency, and water quality.” 

The Commissioners’ tour also visited the Finn Rock Boat landing, where the McKenzie River Trust is fundraising for major improvements, the confluence of Quartz Creek and the McKenzie River, where EWEB and partners are planning another floodplain enhancement project, as well as the former home of Barry Lopez. Lopez, an environmental author who was called a “modern day Thoreau,” lived on and wrote about the McKenzie River for 50 years. He passed away in December of 2020, but now his home serves as a writing retreat and a meeting place for the river conservation community. 

Throughout the day, EWEB Commissioners, staff, and partners emphasized how these projects are possible thanks to the collaborative, multi-organizational approach to protecting our watershed and drinking water quality. 

We are fortunate to have some of the cleanest drinking water in the country and EWEB's Source Water Protection Program is working to keep it that way. The program's successful track record over two decades enables us to collaborate with McKenzie valley landowners, leverage the diverse expertise of watershed partners, and attract funding support from state and federal sources while setting a national example of watershed protection.