Collaboration in McKee Creek
By Ash Brookens, Sanctuary Forest
Tucked between the winding county road and a densely forested hillslope as you approach the community of Whitethorn is McKee Creek, a headwaters tributary to the Mattole River. From the road, you might not even notice that it’s there. But this stream holds promise for coho recovery in the Mattole.
At one time McKee Creek, highly impacted by logging, was in an extremely degraded state. Today, recovering reaches [A reach is any length of a stream or river] within McKee are characterized by cool, clear water and improved salmonid habitat. McKee Creek is the site of several streamflow and habitat enhancement projects undertaken by Sanctuary Forest (SFI) and our partners in recent years that have contributed to improved conditions for aquatic species. Though SFI coordinates and monitors these efforts and secures funding, these projects are the result of ongoing collaboration among our planning and implementation partners, funders, restorationist colleagues, permitting agency staff, and volunteers in our community. A branch-packing project completed in an entrenched side tributary of McKee Creek this fall vibrantly illustrates this collaborative spirit.
The branch-packing work (explained in the next paragraph) is part of a larger habitat restoration project that was started in McKee Creek in 2019. The project was funded by the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) and the Schwemm Family Foundation1 and developed by Sanctuary Forest, Stillwater Sciences, the Mattole Salmon Group, and Elijah Portugal, a fluvial geomorphologist and Senior Environmental Scientist with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW). The original design approach in the mainstem of McKee Creek evolved through a collaborative learning process among these partners. Outcomes from previous projects influenced the replacement of beaver dam analogues (BDAs) with the installation of log and boulder weirs, plus heavy wood-loading to create large complex wood jams throughout 1,000 feet of the stream. This last phase, completed in late October as the rains gently settled in, consisted of installing 10 check-dams at strategic points along 275 feet of an intermittently flowing side tributary. The original plan for the tributary also utilized post-and-weave structures, similar to the BDAs Sanctuary Forest built in Lost River (another headwaters tributary) several years ago. Because BDAs proved very cost—and labor-intensive, and require a fair amount of ongoing maintenance, we revised our plan to instead utilize brush and woody debris sourced from adjacent slopes to “branch-pack” the channel.
1 The Schwemm Family Foundation supports healthy and sustainable communities by promoting programs and initiatives that strengthen communities through the enhancement of natural environments, www.schwemmfamilyfoundation.org
What Is Branch-Packing?
The primary objective of installing these structures, and of branch-packing more generally, is to reduce erosion and reverse channel incision, which is severe at this location. By trapping sediment, thereby raising the channel bed, the groundwater storage capacity of the aggraded bed is increased. As a result, more water is held in the stream banks and toe of the hillslope. The brush-dams (vertically rather than horizontally packed permeable dams) mimic natural accumulations of large wood in the stream and serve as grade control structures. Streamflow enhancement benefits of this project will be localized due to its size, but having even a small inflow of cool groundwater to McKee Creek from the tributary during the summer is critical for juvenile salmonid rearing. McKee Creek currently supports steelhead spawning every year, and rearing in normal rainfall years, with coho also documented spawning and rearing in the creek within the past decade. However, in drought years, summer streamflows become insufficient to sustain rearing, and hundreds of juvenile steelhead perish when isolated pools begin drying up.
To guide our branch-packing efforts in the tributary, SFI staff consulted local and regional restoration practitioners Georje Holper and Brock Dolman, each offering decades of experience mitigating erosion and remediating its impacts in salmon-bearing streams of Northern California. Over the course of several weeks, Georje volunteered to instruct SFI staff, community volunteers, and members of the California Conservation Corps (CCC) on effectively using site-sourced materials such as huckleberry and decaying Douglas-fir logs to construct the dams and branch-pack the deeply incised gully. The CDFW Habitat Restoration Manual was also consulted, but stream conditions don’t always conform to diagrammatic examples. It’s hard to beat having a seasoned local practitioner working alongside you to assess and illuminate the nuanced challenges of each unique site.
As we walk the trail to where the CCC crew is piling the huckleberry they’re harvesting for constructing the brush dams, Georje tells me how she feels it’s important for these types of restoration techniques to be passed on to younger people who may not otherwise encounter them. “I’m glad to see this sort of low tech, low impact, low cost, bioengineering restoration project being done locally,” she says. “It delighted me to introduce and pass on the useful art of building brush dams and branch packing to the younger generation.” And, she points out, “I do not consider it work, it’s way fun!” Even after days of soggy, cold conditions, I wholly concur.
Pass On the Knowledge and Collaborate on Action!
In an effort to make this fun and valuable learning experience reach even further, SFI’s Administrative, Education and Development Director Anna Rogers is creating a video from Georje’s technical demonstrations to share with collaborators such as the CCC so that they can train their members and transfer this technique to other watersheds. “The CCC crew and Sanctuary Forest employees showed genuine interest in the techniques, they asked great questions, and with a little guidance, they built some great functional brush dams,” says Georje of our efforts. CCC leadership also expressed their support of these instructional opportunities to learn practical and transferable restoration skills. As Georje points out, “There is an infinite need for this type work in our watersheds, and hopefully some of the younger (and older) generations will be inspired to learn and use these simple, yet highly effective, gully and stream restoration methods.”
People come to watershed restoration by many different paths and arrive with varying specialties and experience levels. Opportunities for the kind of in-the-trench (literally) skill building that happens when we’re learning and working side-by-side can really fortify our toolkits. Through these collaborations, we grow our understanding of what it takes to improve ecosystems: we encounter new perspectives and learn about what’s been working (or not). People discover the unique ways they can contribute. After all, land and water stewardship are everyone’s business. Having the support of community volunteers, CCC members, and other collaborators in tackling the tedious hand-work required at sites like the McKee tributary with access barriers or difficult terrain, is what makes these important aspects of a larger project feasible. The larger projects can’t happen without a network of local equipment operators, skilled laborers, engineers, scientists, administrators, and others with the experience and the will to implement them. And we need these watershed-scale remediation projects to happen, for the benefit of our whole community: the human members and all the others with whom we share our irreplaceable home, and with whom we have a responsibility to collaborate.
For more information: sanctuaryforest.org