Restoring Dwindling Steelhead, Salmon Populations Populations in Beaver Creek Is Goal of Fish Ladder

La Grande Reservoir is 17 miles south of La Grande. (City of La Grande photo)

The hands of time may be turned back by a fish ladder being constructed this summer at La Grande Reservoir, 17 miles south of La Grande.

The ladder, being built under the direction of the City of La Grande in collaboration with Anderson Perry and Associates, is meant to restore salmon and steelhead populations in a previously inaccessible stream channel in Beaver Creek. The stream channel has been blocked since about 1910 by a dam at La Grande Reservoir.

“(The fish ladder) will open up 17 miles of pristine, undisturbed spawning areas,” said City of La Grande Public Works Director Norm Paullus, who is overseeing the $1.4 million Beaver Creek Project, which includes the fish ladder construction.

A significant number of salmon and steelhead, Paullus said, previously spawned in these areas. For years after the dam was built, steelhead and salmon would return to the dam from the Pacific Ocean and try unsuccessfully to get past it.

Paullus noted that as recently as 10 to 15 years ago, caretakers who lived at the reservoir found steelhead at the base of the dam trying to get over it. Some caretakers reportedly lifted them over the dam and into the reservoir.
La Grande Reservoir had caretakers when it was the city’s primary water source, from the early 1900s through 1991 when the city began getting its water from wells. Today, the reservoir, known to many incorrectly as Beaver Creek Reservoir, is a backup water source for the city.

The fish ladder being constructed will enable fish to pass around the barrier by giving them the opportunity to swim and leap up a series of relatively low steps into La Grande Reservoir, which is fed by Beaver Creek. Each step will be a concrete vault with a small pool of water where fish can rest before going up the next step.

Without the ladder, fish would face a steep 30-foot drop immediately outside the dam, one almost impossible for fish to negotiate, Paullus said.

The vaults for the fish ladder will be installed in Beaver Creek this month through September.

The work is being done as part of a cooperative venture involving a number of major partners in
addition to the City of La Grande and Anderson Perry, including the US. Forest Service’s Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Oregon Water Resources, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Grande Ronde Model Watershed and the Oregon Water Trust.

Bruce Eddy, manager of the ODFW’s East Region, noted that the project has been in the works for a number of years and said he is delighted that it is coming to fruition.

“We are excited to see it get going,” Eddy said.

A biologist, Eddy said it is his hope that making spawning grounds accessible will set the stage for the restoration of salmon and steelhead runs.

Stream enhancement work to restore fish habitat is also part of the Beaver Creek Project. Stream enhancements will include the installation of woody debris such as dead trees. These trees create pools where fish can rest and feed.

About $400,000 will be spent on stream enhancement, the installation of diversions and other work, and $988,000 will go toward the installation of the fish ladder.

The Beaver Creek Project has four funding sources: the State of Oregon Water Resources Department, which is providing $600,000; the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Grande Ronde Model Watershed, which are both providing $150,000 each; and the City of La Grande, which is contributing $500,000. Most of the money the City of La Grande will provide will come from the Oregon Water Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving stream habitat.

Fish in the Beaver Creek stream channel where construction work will be done are being removed and transported to other portions of Beaver Creek, Paullus said. They are being removed via electro shocking. Crews, during this process, use backpack electrofishers that generate mild electrical currents. The current briefly stuns fish, allowing them to be easily netted. The fish are then transported to another part of the Beaver Creek watershed where the construction work will not harm them.

The Beaver Creek Project area is now closed to the public and will remain closed until all work is completed in October. The area around the perimeter of the work area will remain open, but Paullus is urging people to be extremely careful because of the heavy equipment. This will include dump trucks, backhoes and semi trucks. People also need to be on the alert for
concrete vaults being delivered by large trucks. Signs have been posed listing which areas are closed to public use.

Paullus said that the Beaver Creek Project has been at least 18 years in the making. He said that seeing so many parties work
together to make the project a reality is immensely satisfying.

“All the stars were aligned to make this come together,” Paullus said.

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