After a century’s absence, migratory steelhead return to Beaver Creek

three migratory steelhead are pictured swimming in turbulent waters

LA GRANDE, Ore. (July 29, 2019) Earlier this summer, Tim Bailey and Winston Morton of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife were looking for signs of spawning steelhead in the headwaters of Beaver Creek southwest of La Grande. 

They’d surveyed miles of the creek, tediously making their way over downed trees, rocks, and slippery stream banks while scanning the streambed. 

Then they found four redds, depressions in the river gravel made by fish to lay their eggs. 

This simple discovery represents a breakthrough for migratory steelhead, which had not been able to reach the headwaters of Beaver Creek for over 100 years.

A migratory steelhead leaps from the water in an effort to clear a rocky outcrop blocking it's passage upstream.
Human development that blocks migratory steelhead access to historical habitat, as well as poorly-designed passages that create strong currents can tire young fish expose them from predators, have resulted in several species being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Courtesy photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Migratory steelhead are amazing fish. After they are born and raised in cold freshwater streams, they will swim hundreds of miles to feed and grow in the ocean. Then they swim back to the stream of their birth to reproduce. 

For many thousands of years, steelhead followed this life cycle in the Grande Ronde River and its tributaries, including the headwaters of Beaver Creek.

That changed a century ago with the construction of the Beaver Creek Dam and four water diversions in the La Grande municipal watershed.

Steelhead and other migratory fish could no longer swim past the dam and diversions to reach the high-quality spawning and rearing habitat in upper Beaver Creek. 

A man looks out at a concrete weird under construction along a streambed.
A concrete weir under construction as part of the Beaver Creek Fish Passage Project. Just two years after construction, fish biologists have found signs of migratory steelhead returning to the river for the first time in a century. Courtesy photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

To solve this problem, several local, state, and federal entities teamed up to implement the Beaver Creek Fish Passage Project.

When the construction crew broke ground in June of 2017, the project had been in various stages of planning for 20 years.

Why did it take so long?

Designing a structure to provide fish passage up to, and down from, the Beaver Creek Dam was a significant engineering challenge. The structure had to be low-maintenance and work without electricity; it also had to accommodate high flows in the spring as well as low flows later in the summer.

A series of precast concrete weirs is laid into the Beaver Creek streambed.
A series of precast concrete weirs under construction as part of the Beaver Creek Fish Passage Project. Courtesy photo by Anderson Perry & Associates Inc.

The City of La Grande worked with a local civil engineering firm, Anderson Perry & Associates, to evaluate several alternatives for a fish passage structure, and other project partners provided technical feedback.

They ultimately landed on a one-of-a-kind solution: a series of 59 precast concrete weirs (little dams). Each weir weighs 27,000 pounds and had to be constructed off site.

Stacked one-by-one along about 400 feet of the dam’s eastern spillway, the weirs create a staircase of resting pools that allow fish to jump & swim up and over the top of the dam.

To date, there are no other fishways like this in the Pacific Northwest.

Construction workers install a series of precast concrete weirs in a temporarily-drained stream bed.
A series of precast concrete weirs under construction as part of the Beaver Creek Fish Passage Project. The 2017 installation of 59 weirs provides a series of resting pools for fish to swim up to, and down from, the Beaver Creek Dam. Courtesy photo by Anderson Perry & Associates Inc.

Implementing the Beaver Creek Fish Passage Project took a total of $1,125,700 and vital contributions from several partners:

  • The City of La Grande provided technical expertise, project funding, and grant administration.
  • Anderson Perry & Associates of La Grande provided engineering design and construction project management.
  • Lindley Contracting of Union constructed the project, including the fish passage structure, upgraded several intake structures, and replaced worn out utility infrastructure.
  • Grande Ronde Model Watershed facilitated project funding, including $150,000 from the Bonneville Power Administration, as well as technical feedback that contributed to the enhancement of the project.
  • The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board contributed $150,000.
  • The Oregon Water Resources Department provided $600,000 in grant funding.
  • The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife provided expert advice, design review, and project monitoring.
  • The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest provided environmental analysis, planning, technical feedback, and implementation support.

“I’m grateful for the collaborative effort put forth by everyone involved,” Kyle Carpenter, La Grande’s director of public works, said.  “The wealth of knowledge and experience that we all pooled together, along with our cooperative move-it-forward mentality, were invaluable in the successful completion of this project.”

“The La Grande Municipal Watershed provides some of the best drinking water in the world, straight from our National Forest,” Lee Mannor, water superintendent for the city of La Grande, said.  “Now we also provide some of the best native fish habitat in the world.  That is something we can all be proud of when we turn on the tap.”

“The Beaver Creek Fish Passage Project was a special one for our team,” Brett Moore, P.E., with Anderson Perry & Associates, Inc., said  “The City of La Grande asked us to help them solve a unique engineering design problem, which is always rewarding.  This project also gave us a chance to be part of something much bigger right here in our own backyard.”

“This is a testament to nature’s resilience,” Jesse Steele, interim director of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed, said.  “I’m looking forward to more success stories as we continue to connect and restore habitat in the Grande Ronde Basin.”

“After more than 100 years away, migratory steelhead now have access to over 14 miles of pristine spawning and rearing habitat above the Beaver Creek Dam, and they are moving back in,” Tim Bailey, a fisheries biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said.  “Finding those first four redds was an important milestone, and I expect we will find even more in the future.”

“It really made my summer when I heard that steelhead were once again spawning in upper Beaver Creek,” Bill Gamble, district ranger for the La Grande District, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said.  “There is a lot of credit to go around. We in the Forest Service were just privileged to work with so many great partners over the years to help make the Beaver Creek Fish Passage Project a reality. This is another win for our local restoration economy – where habitat restoration projects are driving more investments and jobs while improving everyone’s access to natural resources.”

An Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife employee, in the foreground, inspects a portion of Beaver Creek being restored for improved fish passage.
An Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife employee, foreground, inspects a portion of Beaver Creek being restored for improved fish passage. Courtesy photo by Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

For more information, please see the article, “Reconnecting the Habitat Dots,” published in Ripples in the Grande Ronde and the La Grande Observer in the summer of 2017.


Source information: Wallowa Whitman National Forest (press release).

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