$1.2 million for floodplains project on Methow River
The Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation (MSRF) is the recipient of a new Floodplains by Design grant awarded from the Washington Department of Ecology.
The grant will provide $1.2 million to begin work on MSRF’s Sugar Reach Channels Reconnection Project. The project is currently being designed, and MSRF Executive Director Chris Johnson hopes to start work in 2024.
The Sugar Reach Channels Reconnection Project includes four subproject areas, all located along the Methow River from the vicinity of the Methow Valley State Airport to the confluence of the Twisp and Methow rivers.
The new Floodplains by Design grant will fund work on at least two, and perhaps three, of the four areas. The work will take place on land that MSRF owns and land owned by people who’ve agreed to participate in the project, said Johnson.
Floodplains by Design is a public-private partnership led by Ecology, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy, with support from American Rivers, a tribal liaison, and other contractors, said Ecology in a news release. Reducing flood risk is a key component of the Floodplains by Design program.
“We are working with partners across the state to improve the resiliency of Washington’s floodplains so that we can protect community health, safety, and the environment,” said Ecology Director Laura Watson in a news release.
In the context of flood hazard management, resiliency refers to floodplains that can readily accommodate flood flows, which reduces impacts on developed and agricultural land. Resilient floodplains are also able to recover more quickly after flooding than floodplains that are disconnected from the river or have been altered by development or vegetation removal.
MSRF will be working to reconnect the Methow River with its floodplain and old river channels, which will increase the land’s capacity to store water during floods and high-water events.
It will also give the river room to move, which Johnson said is necessary to support healthy riparian vegetation and provide good fish habitat. Water tends to flow fast where rivers are constrained by levees or other barriers, washing out sand, small rocks, and vegetative debris and leaving what Johnson calls an “armored riverbed” with few resources for spawning or rearing juvenile fish.
A river that can occupy its floodplain and flow into abandoned channels slows down as it spreads out, picking up sediment and plant material from the areas it inundates. That creates “a channel that has much more varied substrate size that includes more of the rocks that salmon are able to move around to create the redds [nests] for spawning,” said Johnson. “It’s more nutrient enhanced because it … has more of the materials that’ve been washed out of the floodplain, whether that’s whole trees or leaf litter or things in various stages of decomposition, which have a lot of nutrients.”
Getting into the river
Johnson expects the Floodplains by Design work to be spread over three work seasons. “We’re only allowed to work in the active channel of the river for one month each year,” he said.
That limitation on instream work exists to protect threatened spring Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. “Three years seems like a long time, but three years equals three months” of work in the river, said Johnson.
Planning for the Sugar Reach Channels Reconnection Project has been underway for more than a decade. Design is being funded with a 2022 grant from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which is administered by Washington State’s Recreation and Conservation Office. The Floodplains by Design project will focus on the two subproject areas closest to Twisp, dubbed Sugar Left (on the left side of the river as one faces downstream) and Sugar Right.
To give the Methow River access to its floodplain, MSRF plans to remove portions of levees that were built following the 1972 flood from the Sugar Right area. In places, the land behind the levees has been filled, and MSRF will remove the fill and install native plants to restore the floodplain. Among other attributes, plants help slow water and give fish places to shelter during times of high flow.
In the Sugar Left area, MSRF plans to excavate historic river channels and reconnect them to the Methow mainstem. Reconnecting channels lets water flow into areas that have been cut off from the river’s current path by sediment accumulation and bank hardening.
Like levee removal, creating access to those channels gives water another place to go during high-water events. Side channels can also offer refuge to fish during times when the river is turbulent.
Although MSRF’s work will allow water to enter parts of the floodplain that are now protected, land that is not part of the project will see no increase in flooding, said Johnson. “Nobody who lives in this area will see more water on their property who doesn’t already know it and who isn’t already part of the project,” he said. MSRF has worked extensively with landowners to secure support and cooperation.
Maintaining existing flood elevations on land outside the project boundaries is required by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules, said Johnson. The project’s designers are using hydraulic modeling to understand how the river behaves, and where water will flow, under various conditions.
Johnson pointed to MSRF’s existing floodplain restoration on WDFW land across the river from the state airport as an example of a successful levee-removal project. “We’re getting phenomenal regrowth of the riparian vegetation because of that, and we’re seeing really good response from the salmon,” he said. “It hasn’t impacted adjacent properties.”
In addition to levee and fill removal, channel reconnection, and planting, the upcoming work will include placement of wood structures. The structures are similar to natural accumulations of logs that were once common features of river channels. They are strategically placed and engineered to protect the river’s banks from erosion, and anchored so they stay in place when the river is running high. Like naturally occurring woody debris, the structures slow water while providing habitat for fish and other stream dwellers.
MSRF has asked Ecology to allow Floodplains by Design funds to be used for work at a third sub-project site, said Johnson. The site, known as “Eagle Rocks,” is near the Riverbend RV Park, and Johnson said he expects that Ecology will agree to modify MSRF’s award so that work can proceed there. Work at that site will include many of the same elements as at the two Sugar sites — installation of wood structures, excavation, and riparian planting.
Road to recovery
MSRF is a nonprofit organization working to support recovery of listed salmonid species by protecting, restoring, and conserving habitat in the Methow watershed. The foundation has worked in the valley for over 20 years and has completed numerous projects in partnership with state, federal and tribal agencies as well as many other organizations and private landowners.
MSRF’s Floodplains by Design grant is one of two awarded for work in the Methow basin. The Yakama Nation has also been awarded funding for a project near Twisp.
Johnson anticipates holding public workshops at which the community will be able to learn about the project and share opinions, probably early next spring. In the meantime, he encourages anyone interested to visit MSRF’s web site. For information about the Sugar Reach Channels Reconnection project, go to www.methowsalmon.org and click the “Sugar Reach” photo. You can also contact MSRF at email@example.com or (509) 996-2787, or call Johnson directly at (509) 429-1232.