PORTLAND, Ore. — The engineers must have looked upon the long and meandering river from its heavily tree-lined and jagged banks and envisioned something more – a utopian river. The new sleek river would have even, gradual and grass-lined banks and wouldn’t be prone to flooding. Perfection!
Improving this river would be an exceptional and fitting challenge for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because in the post-World War II era, there wasn’t an engineering or re-engineering feat Americans couldn’t accomplish. So, re-engineer the river they did: aligning, shaping and shortening it by 13 miles, or by about a third, below Fern Ridge Dam.
After the alterations, the Long Tom River was straighter, deeper, wider and, combined with an upstream dam, reduced flood risks to the downstream communities. The re-engineered river could more aptly be called the Short Tom River.
In the years that followed, the Corps managed the river by balancing flood risk and environmental stewardship with less and less funding for maintenance. And even though the southwestern part of the Willamette Valley has reaped the rewards of this man-altered creation, Cameron Bishop, Willamette Valley Project natural resource specialist, said river management is still challenging.
“Maintenance has gone from 100 percent chemical clearing of woody vegetation every other year, and repair of any and all scours and channel imperfections to almost no maintenance attention in the last 25 years,” said Bishop. “There are about 175 land owners that hold title to the underlying lands,” he added. “They all have slightly different ideas on how the river should be operated and maintained.”
That second issue is especially tricky. The Corps only has easements to construct or maintain the channel.
Those various factors led Bishop to invite a cohort to canoe a section of the Long Tom to see the issues for themselves. This group was made up of District employees and a couple other drifters – a private citizen interested in river conservation and a member of the Long Tom Watershed Council.
Salina Hart, Reservoir Regulation and Water Quality Section chief, regulates water on the Long Tom for the District from her office in Portland but she only had a periphery view of the river before the trip.
“Prior to the trip I had put a considerable amount of thought into the downstream river channel; however, having a perception and an actual encounter are very different,” said Hart. “The trip reaffirmed my passion for water management. It also brought me awareness to how others, internal and external to the Corps, value the watershed.”
Bishop talked to the boaters about the history of the Long Tom and Amanda Reinholtz, Long Tom Watershed Council habitat and water quality specialist, spoke to the group about Ludwigia Hexapetala, an invasive plant species in the river that, if left unchecked, could significantly disturb the river’s ecosystem.
“It forms dense, channel-spanning vegetation mats that can interfere with water conveyance, irrigation intakes and other water infrastructure, boating and recreation, water quality and fish habitat,” said Reinholtz. “The Long Tom Watershed Council has been working together with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon State Weed Board for the past three years to address the problem.”
Reinholtz said she appreciated the opportunity to be included on the canoe float.
“Even though the Long Tom Watershed Council and the Corps have different mandates, we have a lot of the same values and goals. We both want to do right by the natural and human communities that call the river home, and we look forward to working toward that vision together.”
This was the second time Bishop had led such a trip for District employees. He hopes that this trip will keep District staff engaged and actively thinking about how to manage the river in the future.