Millicoma River project

The new path of the Millicoma East Fork. The area underneath the bridge used to be filled with dirt. 

COOS COUNTY — A project on the East Fork of the Millicoma River that has been in the works for more than a decade is finally reaching its completion this month.

The Coos Watershed Association has been trying to get a section of the Millicoma River, located in the Weyerhaeuser Millicoma Tree Farm, reconnected in order to allow fish easier passage to upstream spawning areas. The area used to be part of the East Fork’s river flow route almost 60 years ago.

Dust fills the air around Mile 7 of the Millicoma logging road, where mounds of dirt are being moved and leveled out. Weyerhaeuser Forest Engineer Jason Richardson said more than 6,000 truckloads of dirt have been moved from underneath the bridges into the space of land where he stands.

In the 1950s two wooden bridges crossing the river were filled in, blocking a half mile of habitat and creating a bypass which was difficult for fish to navigate. Uplands Project Manager Allison Tarbox said only one in 10 Chinook salmon were able to make it upstream. That’s because the river’s diversion created a 6-percent slope for fish to swim up, whereas the new route sits at around 1 percent.

The project, which broke ground in March, will add 16 miles of habitat for salmon.

Now dirt will fill the area where the river used to be diverted to. The new passage creates a horseshoe shape that will also serve as a good habitat for the juvenile salmon. Tarbox said the benefits don’t stop there.

“They [salmon] won’t be as tired, the distribution is going to be greater, the survival rate is going to be higher,” she said.

Tarbox said she thinks there will also be more eggs, because the salmon will be able to dig deeper reds, which are the fish equivalent of a nest. Salmon like to dig down into the gravel beds to lay their eggs, further up the river there’s more places for them to do that. After the eggs hatch, they spend their early life in the river until they mature and go out to sea.

Richardson said the Coos Watershed Association came to Weyerhaeuser in the early 2000s to partner and complete the project. He said it took 10 years just to do all the research.

“We had to analyze six different options and decide what the best solution was,” Richardson said. He said the current plan works best for the fish and was more economically feasible than some of the other plans.

Tarbox said the association got funding for the project in 2015. She does most of her work in the field during the in-water work period which runs from July to mid-September. It’s a time when there’s low water flow and salmon aren’t migrating upstream.

After six months of hard labor and many more years of planning, the project is finally coming to a close.

“It’s been a long road and this summer has gone by really smoothly,” he said.

But just because the project is completed, doesn’t mean it’s the end of the work that needs to be done in that area. “It’s not like we’re done,” Richardson said, “We’ve got two grants in the docket for sediment reduction and fish passage.”

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Reach Saphara Harrell at (541) 269-1222 ext. 239 or by email at saphara.harrell@theworldlink.com