Written by Chris Vogel, Green Island Project Manager and Nicole Nielsen-Pincus, Willamette Program Manager with the McKenzie River Trust
In January 2012, high water events in our region gave us a chance to see how and where our rivers might have historically flowed. At Green Island, just downstream of the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers, several days of high flows offered us a glimpse at just how much room a large river can spread into. The rising waters were remarkable. During high water, the Willamette flowed into swales and channels that look like flat ground for much of the year. Historic braided channels came to life. Water sheeted across fields, sitting flat and mellow between raging, silt-filled channels. Backwater sloughs turned to roaring eddies as the river flowed higher. At that moment, we truly saw the Willamette as a living river, surging, shifting, and full.
In our work to protect special lands in western Oregon, the staff of the McKenzie River Trust spends a lot of time on the ground talking with landowners in the Willamette River basin. We often find common ground with landowners in the belief that dynamic rivers are a natural piece of the Willamette Valley landscape.
The stretch of the mainstem Willamette between Eugene and Albany offers some of the best opportunities in our region to restore natural river processes. At Green Island, we are working to enhance floodplain function and habitat on over 1,000 acres of land. Green Island is also the site of the Coburg Aggregate Reclamation Project (CARP), a 56-acre former gravel quarry that we acquired in 2010 thanks to the Bonneville Power Administration. In the coming years, we'll do extensive hydrologic work in the gravel pits to add off-channel habitat and reconnect the historic McKenzie River channel with the floodplain. Native amphibians, birds, and fish, like federally listed Chinook salmon, will benefit from the restoration. And landowners stand to benefit too; increased floodwater storage capacity at Green Island will lessen the impacts of flooding on people living downstream.