Debbie Croft: Rock piles go from eyesore to river restoration tool

11/22/2013 6:58 PM

11/22/2013 7:00 PM

Some of humanity’s ideas are brilliant: telephone and radio communications, irrigation, refrigeration, organ transplants and the printing press, for example.

But some of our ideas are not. Dredge fields, for instance.

Along Highway 16 between Snelling and Merced Falls, huge piles of discarded river rocks line the road. An aerial view shows almost 10 miles of historic dredge-mining tailings (rock mounds) covering the landscape and obscuring scenic waterfront property.

The mounds are an eyesore – leftovers from a previous generation’s occupational efforts.

In the early to mid-1900s, several communities near the base of California’s central and northern Sierra foothills became the sites of dredge fields. During the Depression when jobs were scarce, people were more interested in making a living than protecting the environment.

Today fence posts stand askew, poking out of the artificial landscape. Tufts of grass and weeds grow among the rocks. Tenacious oaks have somehow managed to root themselves between the mounds.

A few residents have cleared the land and built homes.

I attended a meeting recently celebrating the completion of the Merced River Ranch Channel and Floodplain Restoration Project.

Merced River Ranch is a section of property consisting of 318 acres along the lower Merced River.

The property was redesigned to improve the structure and flow of the river. This will also improve the natural habitat for salmon and steelhead spawning.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, adverse changes in the habitat have occurred over time because of human activities, including mining and irrigation diversion. As a result, the main river channel became disconnected from off-channel and floodplain habitat.

In addition, four dams upstream have confined the gravel to lake areas, restricting the movement of gravel down the river. Salmon need gravel for spawning. Because of this deficiency, fish populations on the lower Merced River have seriously diminished.

Rhonda Reed is the San Joaquin River branch chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries West Coast Region. In the late 1990s she was instrumental in writing the original grant proposal to purchase the property.

Reed also attended the meeting celebrating the restoration project. “Thanks for implementing this,” she said. “What to do with a pile of rocks? Well done!”

Instead of buying and trucking in loads of rock to rebuild river features, gravel augmentation took place. More than 90,000 cubic yards of gravel from the mounds were screened, crushed and added to the river.

Pat Brantley, coordinator for the anadromous fish habitat restoration program with the DFW, said: “About 100 years worth of gravel is available for future projects.”

Rocko Brown, a geomorphologist, is the lead engineer for the project. Before reconfiguring the flow of water and redesigning the lay of the land, he viewed the tailings from the air.

“I started thinking: What if we took those away? What opportunities would open up for tourism and recreation? Do residents realize what kind of potential they have here?” he told us.

The meeting provided an opportunity for me to meet new people and learn more about California history, not to mention adding a few more words to my vocabulary.

More than that, though, I was encouraged by the innovation of those who are willing to get their hands dirty and clean up someone else’s mess.

But that’s just the beginning of the story.

Since this summer’s completion of the four-year project, salmon are already using the newly constructed gravel beds. It was exciting to see so many splashing in the currents.

Earlier this month my husband and daughter took kayaks down the river with friends from Snelling. They were surprised by salmon jumping up from the water beside them.

Vegetation is lush along the river’s edges – a ribbon of green through the dry, golden landscape this time of year.

By reusing natural resources to restore local wildlife habitats, we’re not only benefiting other living creatures, we’re on the way to benefiting our communities, as well.

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