You’ve probably heard or read about new culverts and tide gates being installed in the Winter Lake area. But I’ll bet you’ll don’t know the full benefits of the changes – not just for local ranching families, but also for Northwest salmon recovery, migratory bird habitat and more.
My job with the Coquille Indian Tribe has given me a chance to work on this restoration effort, and I’ve been impressed by the project partners’ hard work and perseverance. It’s an inspiring example of cooperation between conservation and agriculture.
Winter Lake, situated northwest of Coquille, historically was a wooded wetland. For thousands of years, ancestors of today’s Coquille Tribe harvested its abundant deer, elk, small game and fish. Its lush vegetation provided materials for basket weaving and other needs.
The 20th century brought a new kind of productivity to the land. Dikes, drains and floodgates turned the formerly boggy forest into a thriving agricultural area. The system has protected the floodplain since 1907.
But controlling tidewaters is a mixed blessing. Interfering with fish migration has contributed to the desperate condition of Oregon’s coho runs. And, after more than a century of use, the tide-control system is wearing out. If the dikes and gates fail, twice-daily tidewaters could destroy the livelihoods and property of local ranching families.
Neither the ranchers nor the Beaver Slough Drainage District could afford to replace the failing infrastructure. So an improbable partnership was born, bringing together ranchers, conservation groups, government agencies, a local gun club and the Coquille Tribe.
There are two projects. The Winter Lake Restoration Project will reconstruct eight miles of tidal channel and restore 420 acres of salmon habitat. The China Camp Creek Project features modernized tide gates and culverts to manage water levels on the drainage district’s 1,700 acres.
A little background: Tide gates control the flow and level of water in floodplains, canals and streams. Old-style gates are hinged at the top, so their own weight combines with tidal pressure to keep them mostly closed. That limits the passage of fish.
The replacement gates come in two styles. Some swing from side hinges, while others slide upward. These new designs let gates stay open most of the time, aiding fish passage. Another plus: The new gates can be controlled individually to meet landowners’ water level needs.
By helping both conservation and ranching, these innovations inspire the project slogan, “We grow beef in the summer and fish in the winter.”
These projects will yield benefits far beyond our local area. They’re a key element of the federal government’s Oregon Coast coho recovery plan. The Coquille River Valley is also the most important waterfowl area between San Francisco and the Columbia River, providing the Pacific Flyway’s first major stopover for northbound birds. Controlling water levels will help the birds rest and feed safely.
Reviving this damaged ecosystem is especially sweet for the Coquille Tribe. Robust salmon runs, now devastated by the loss of habitat, were a dietary and cultural underpinning of traditional Indian life. That’s why the tribe donated my time to help on the project, along with helping secure more than $700,000 in grant funding.
These projects’ innovative strategy and cooperative spirit should be a source of pride for the whole community. A shared “win” for fish, fowl and farmers, it’s being watched closely by drainage districts throughout the region. Its contribution to coho recovery will be a victory for ranchers, for the Coquille Indians, and for the whole community.
— Helena Linnell is a biologist employed by the Coquille Indian Tribe.