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Mother Nature’s Turn

High water along the Truckee accomplishes up to $1 million worth of restoration work, naturally
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By JAMIE WANZEK  |  Moonshine Ink

The community’s lifeblood, the Truckee River, has returned with vigor. In addition to creating rare whitewater conditions and easing our concerns about the recent drought, the raging cobalt flows have done up to $1 million worth of restoration work naturally, says David Lass, Trout Unlimited (TU) California field director. The estimate is largely based on the amount of woody debris that has been swept into the river, which creates fish habitat, feeds aquatic insects, and establishes “structure.”

Based on projects that TU has organized doing exactly the same thing — placing dead trees on the river bottom — he estimates that the high water has done the equivalent of $600,000 to $1 million of restoration work along the Truckee River watershed.

“I don’t think it’s incredibly important to get this number exact, and more important to focus on the fact that it happened and what it does for fish,” Lass said.

Placing large woody debris on reaches of the Truckee and Little Truckee isn’t easy, nor is it cheap. For perspective, in 2015 TU spent $90,000 on trees for their Little Truckee River project (one tree costs about $6,000 to $10,000). Additional costs to anchor the trees into the river include permitting, large machinery, labor, and materials.

Based on visual surveys of the Truckee, Lass and his team estimate 100-plus new trees have been deposited in local parts of the Truckee River watershed, a scope of “work” accomplished this spring by Mother Nature that could never be achieved by man-powered restoration projects alone, Lass says.

Why all this excitement about woody debris? It’s any fisherman’s first secret: dead trees always foster fish. Trees offer shelter and shade for our finned friends; while the root wad activates spawn gravels, embedded in the bed, that the fish use for reproduction. Dead trees also provide food for insects, such as stoneflies and mayflies, which the fish in turn eat. During the drought, there was a dearth of dead trees in the Truckee River, Lass said, but in the current high water, sideways flows have grabbed dead trees along the banks and deposited them in the stream. The mobile trees then scour the riverbed and create pools — changing the geomorphic profile of the river. This translates to big news for the waterway — and the fish.

“The large woody debris is one of the best ways to promote and sustain fish habitat over the long run,” Lass said. “If they fall in and they are wetted, they will stay that way for 40 to 50 years. It’s not just a momentary deal.”

While the fishermen may be rejoicing, there’s a caveat, says Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council: If an area is not healthy to begin with, the high water can actually create more damage. Impacts from the seven dams on the Truckee and of industries such as mining and logging have compromised the watershed. Manmade restoration work on the river’s banks is essential to establish a healthy ecosystem that can handle Tahoe’s extreme weather cycles, Wallace says. High water actually increases the damage of unhealthy areas through degradation and stream bank erosion, which then creates excessive deposits of sediment in the creeks.

“A lot of water cannot fix an unhealthy system. It has got to be healthy to begin with,” Wallace explained. “That’s where restoration work is really important.”

Donner Creek, a tributary of the Truckee, is an example that will likely have a hard time adapting to the high flows and will showcase damage once the flows slow down, she added. Conversely, she expects to see benefits from the high water in sections of the area that the Watershed Council has helped restore, including the four miles of the Truckee River from Tahoe Dam to Bear Creek (their First Four Mile Resortation project), Perazzo Meadows, and the Middle Martis.

While Mother Nature reigns complete, the high-water season is a reminder that restoration work requires humans and nature to work hand-in-hand, accomplishing things together.

“I think we all forgot how a vibrant river makes you feel better,” Lass said. “The high-water season has solidified the fact that rivers really do bring people and life together and are such a focal point of this community.”

 
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October 12, 2017