Aug. 24, 2019 — Eli Tome, Executive Director for the Siuslaw Watershed Council, presented the Watershed Council’s completed work over the past few years at Tuesday’s Environmental Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) monthly session. Tome’s focus of the presentation was historical background on what the Siuslaw Watershed used to look like when salmon populations were thriving, a snapshot of the projects the council is working on to restore the watershed to supportive species environments, and how the council is spending the money it has received in order to do this.
Last year, the Siuslaw Watershed Council spent $1.3 million on local contracted services to help restore the watershed. This is important for the local economy of Florence because it creates jobs and enriches the local economic output.
“Research shows that for every million dollars invested in restoration, that supports 15 to 18 local jobs and it also has a local economic output of 1.6 times that investment,” Tome said. “So the contractors that we hire come to town to utilize the local goods and services, which trickles through our local economy. We think it’s a really important future for our region. Our work is supporting watershed by helping the watershed get healthier, but we’re also helping our community and we’re investing in local contractors to make that work happen.”
The biggest project the $1.3 million was spent on was the enhancement of 12 miles of stream habitat within the Siuslaw Watershed, where crews created a more complex habitat for salmon. They also planted over 30,000 native plants of 47 different species, spread 161 pounds of native plant seeds and gave away over 12,000 native plants to 150 different community members across the watershed who live along the river to help restore habitats for the future. The council also replaced an aging culvert — a tunnel carrying a stream under a road or railroad — so it could maintain access to 3.5 miles of critical Coho salmon habitat near Walton.
“One reason the Siuslaw is so interesting is because we were actually connected to the McKenzie River 20 million years ago, before the Coast Range uplifted. We used to drain the Paleo-Cascades and that’s why we have such a low gradient, and the valleys down in the Siuslaw. Sea levels were a lot lower 20 million years ago, so the river was cutting down, which is why we have such a deep, wide estuary too. That sets us up geologically to be basically salmon heaven,” Tome said. “If you would have been here in the 1800s, you would have seen a complicated stream system. There would have been an integrated system with islands throughout, with multiple channels coming through. There would have been beaver dams everywhere. During that time, it was great for salmon. So that’s one reason why we had such high salmon numbers.”
According to Tome, now the Siuslaw Watershed Council is focusing its restoration projects to recreate those habitats of the past that have been essentially destroyed by human intervention.
“In the 1800s when Europeans first started pushing into the region, they had different practices than we have today, one of which was splash dam logging. They built a splash dam across the valley bottom, harvested all the wood on the hillslopes and put it in the lake behind it,” Tome said. “In winter high flows, they would dynamite out that damn and the flood wall would have rushed all the logs down to the middle.
“You can imagine what that would do to that complicated stream system. It simplified a lot of stuff. You might notice the Siuslaw is bedrock scoured in a lot of places and it wouldn’t have looked like that in the 1800s. It’s been scoured out by those flood flows and by logs being transported down the stream. At the same time, they were harvesting a lot of salmon.”
Based on cannery records from the late 1800s, the watershed council was able to determine that as many as 462,000 salmon returned to the Siuslaw in 1896. They estimate about a 50 percent catch rate, which means as many as a million salmon were returning to the Siuslaw in any given year during that time. On average during the late 1800s, 256,000 salmon would be canned from the Siuslaw per year.
However, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that in 1997, as little as 500 salmon returned.
“Those two things together — the unsustainable timber practices and the unsustainable salmon catch — is why that number decreased so rapidly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. So we’re looking at those watershed processes that were impaired,” Tome said. “We’re trying to repair those processes so that the system can retain itself into the future and be resilient.”
The Siuslaw Watershed Council has also partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation District, the Bureau of Land Management, Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, The Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wild Salmon Center and the McKenzie River Trust to create the Siuslaw Coho Partnership that, so far, has spent three and a half years working on a plan to restore salmon habitats in the basin of the watershed.
“We are also working with local tribes to integrate their place-based knowledge, their traditional ecological knowledge about how they have managed and stewarded the watershed for thousands of years and how they are integrating that with the current state standards to teach a more holistic understanding of the watershed that is integrating the past knowledge of the past stewards of our watershed,” Tome added.
The Siuslaw Watershed Council focuses on salmon conservation because salmon are a keystone species, which means they are a more sensitive species in the environment.
“Salmon are an indicator of watershed functions, so if the habitat is good for salmon, then it’s good for many other species,” Tome said.
Salmon are also culturally important. From an ecosystem standpoint, salmon are the indicators species that shows how healthy the watershed is.
“Funding tends to be Coho flavored, so that’s what we chase after. But it helps the whole watershed function,” Tome said.
The Siuslaw Watershed Council is working on a number of restoration projects in order to build back the habitat of the watershed that has been lost over the years, but it focuses its restoration efforts on areas that will be able to sustain itself through the impending environmental impacts of climate change.
“Everything we do is related to climate change in making sure we have a more resilient watershed in the future. That’s why all of our restoration projects are focused on restoring natural processes that create that salmon habitat instead of putting a Band-Aid on something,” Tome said. “If there is an area that is not set up to be resilient in the future, we’re not going to work in it.”
Looking to the future, the watershed council plans to partner more in education, where representatives can go into classrooms and bring youth to the restoration projects to show them what they are working on and teach them why.
“Today we need to be cultivating tomorrow’s stewards of our watershed, and education is a huge, important part of that,” Tome said.
The council has also offered the Watershed Exploration Camp for the past 17 years as a week-long youth camp where children learn about the watershed and its restoration efforts.
During the latter part of Tuesday’s EMAC meeting, a motion was unanimously passed for EMAC to adopt milepost 190 to 191 on Highway 101 in Florence. This mile stretches from the Goodwill to right across the bridge. EMAC would be required to pick garbage at least four times a year in order to maintain this stretch of highway. This highway adoption is pending approval from legal counsel at the City of Florence.
EMAC is also going forward with the launch of a campaign to adopt a street in town as well, but no street had been chosen as of Tuesday.
For more information on the Siuslaw Watershed Council’s restoration efforts, the Watershed Exploration Camp, upcoming events and videos showcasing its work, visit www.siuslaw.org or follow the council on Facebook at The Siuslaw Watershed Council.
For more information about EMAC, go to www.ci.florence.or.us/bc-emac.