Enjoying A Restored Sandy River

NOTE: We’re pleased to welcome Thomas O’Keefe, PhD, for this guest post. Tom is a river ecologist and the Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, a national river conservation organization and a partner with American Rivers in river conservation and restoration efforts across the country.

Three years ago I was there on the banks of the Sandy River with a host of dignitaries and river conservation organizations who shared a vision for restoring a river. At noon on a beautiful spring day an explosion echoed down the river and a plume of concrete debris flew up into the clear blue sky—Marmot Dam removal and restoration of the Sandy River was really underway.

Over the course of the summer the dam itself was removed—reduced to rubble and trucked away. With the first major rain event in October of that year the coffer dam that had diverted water around the construction site was allowed to collapse. To the astonishment of many, much of the sediment that had collected behind the dam over the last century washed downstream and by the end of the weekend what was once a reservoir looked very much like a river—in fact it was a river and an amazing testament to the power of rivers to restore themselves with the simple act of removing the concrete plug (watch the video)

Three years later it was a real joy to visit the river and once again see what was gained as old and new friends gathered from around the region to explore the river on a typical Northwest cloud-draped November day. We began our journey at Marmot Bridge and after navigating through Alder Creek Rapid we soon entered a living gorge with flora that carpeted the walls and a river that was clearly enjoying its newly-discovered channel. Where once the channel had been the slackwater of a reservoir the river had made continued progress in moving sediment downstream and exposing old ledges and bringing rapids back to life that had never been experienced by whitewater paddlers.

Coming up to the dam site itself it was hard to even see where the dam had been and one had to look closely for the evidence. All the infrastructure that had been there—the dam, pipes and canals, and the inadequate fish ladders—was gone with only the footbridge that had once framed the dam now framing the river. While much of the focus of this project was on the benefits for the river’s salmon and steelhead, this being one of the major tributaries below the first dam on the Columbia River, it was wonderful to experience the recreational attributes of a restored river. This restored river is now recognized as Sandy River Water Trail, one of the State of Oregon’s signature water trails.

The Sandy River is one of a number of restoration efforts in the region and I am eagerly awaiting two high profile dam removals on the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers in Washington State scheduled to get underway within the year. Like Marmot Dam on the Sandy River, these dams served an important purpose, but dams need not be permanent features on the landscape. As with the Sandy, many have wondered how long it will take for these rivers to recover. Some have speculated that we won’t see noticeable recovery for years. Based on my own experience exploring rivers where dams have been removed I take an alternate view—we will once again be amazed at how quickly recovery occurs. Just remove the concrete plug—the river knows what to do!