Bear River watershed field tour highlights local restoration projects
UINTA COUNTY — A dozen people — including congressional representatives from Sen. Cynthia Lummis’ and Sen. John Barasso’s offices — attended a field tour of the Bear River watershed conservation projects on Friday, Aug. 18. The tour began at 8 a.m. and ended with a picnic hosted by Upper Bear River Trout Unlimited at 1 p.m. at Hamblin Park.
Those attending included Michael Fiorelli and Jim DeRito from Trout Unlimited; Dave Kimble, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Brett Carlson with Iron Horse Construction; Adrian Hunolt, landowner and irrigator; Kerri Sabey, Uinta County Conservation District; Robert Keith, Wyoming Game and Fish Department; Tori Teegarden, representing Sen. Barasso’s office; and Sarah Hale, field representative for Sen. Lummis.
Everyone on the tour was given a handout with photos and summary of the work done on each project so they could follow along as the tour progressed.
The tour began at the Evanston dam where DeRito read a letter to the group from Evanston Public Works Director Gordon Robinson.
“We support the positive environmental impact of this project and are pleased that plans have been fulfilled to return the river to its natural stream and to provide better fish and wildlife habitat in the area,” the letter states.
Local landowners Wayne and Sherry Unruh joined the tour at the Evanston dam site where DeRito reviewed the summary of the history of the work done at the area. Unruh complimented the work and said the communication with all involved had been great and he appreciated it.
“Originally, there was a 100-foot long, 5-foot tall full-span concrete dam here that served as the city of Evanston’s water supply diversion, and it was failing,” DeRito said. “The dam also created a barrier for fish migration, including the Bonneville cutthroat trout and bluehead sucker. Culinary water was diverted at the dam by several landowners. Upstream of the Evanston dam, the Myers ditch irrigation diversion required annual maintenance and push-up dams and the headgate needed replacing.”
Culinary wells had been drilled or improved for five homes in 2020 and 2021 and, in 2022, the river was realigned to the west around the dam. The dam walls were demolished, and the dam sill was buried.
About 2,140 feet of river was realigned with 600 feet of toe wood, two cross-channel rock J-hooks, and nine boulder-constructed riffles. A new headgate, sediment sluice and large rock diversion structure were installed for the Myers ditch, eliminating the need for the annual construction of a push-up dam, improving operation and maintenance.
“Removing the dam was a good option for habitat and for all involved,” DeRito said. “This is a multi-channel approach and the use of wood on the banks is better than concrete banks, which stops the river’s natural flow and spread. You want the river water to spread over the roller banks, which helps habitat and fish flow. The best thing is to give a river room to flow.”
Kimble said natural vegetation would take over in several years, and the realignment will last for a long time. He said that, with the dam, the culinary water had not been good for the landowners along the river and, from a habitat perspective, the trees, shrubs and toe wood along the banks will stop erosion and be a benefit to wildlife. He said the restoration engineers were specialized and skilled at planning for the high and low flow of the river.
Kimble explained it is called “toe wood” as it is placed at the bottom of the slope and the water can flow under it. Burlap and wood stakes hold it in, and it creates a way for the water to flow naturally.
“This has been a six-year project,” Kimble said. “Planning started in 2012. We have a total of 12 projects of this same scale left to do.”
The Evanston dam realignment project was one of the first infrastructure projects completed with bipartisan infrastructure law funding nationally. The project was completed in the fall of 2022 and improved fish passage for all species, eliminated a safety hazard and structural liability for the city and provided new culinary water sources for five nearby residences.
A partnership among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trout Unlimited, City of Evanston, private landowners, water rights holders and local construction contractors made the completion of the realignment project possible. Iron Horse Construction and B & A Restorations were the contractors for the project.
The second stop on the tour was at the Booth diversion rebuild and restoration project. Water rights holder and rancher Wade Lowham joined the group.
At this site, DeRito explained that a push-up dam of river substrate, concrete slab and other assorted materials was annually constructed by the water user across the entire width of the river to turn the water into the canal. This created a fish passage barrier and created water quality concerns due to 600 tons of sediment pushed into the river each year.
The solution was to use the material from the push-up dam to create new riverbank and a new approach to the canal. Riffles in the river were created with rock and boulders where the river crossed over between the bends. The irrigation diversion was rebuilt, and the Bear River channel was realigned.
Logs and brush were placed on about 700 feet of two upper meander bends, creating deep pools. A large rock cross vane was installed at the upstream end of the canal approach. A series of pools and riffles were created downstream of the new point of diversion to gradually step down the river and provide fish passage.
Lowham said, “This turns the water into the headgate and makes my life a whole lot easier. All I have to do now is open the headgate to irrigate. No more pushing dirt and making a push-up dam.”
Carlson said, “Every time we do something like this and we get a hard winter, I lose sleep. But the toe wood has been key to the success of these projects. We are learning and, overall, we’ve done well. Wade gets his water, and the river flow is good.”
Sabey said they had been studying the results of removing the push-up dam but there was not enough data yet to determine the actual increase in fish.
DeRito said every time they get rid of the sediment issue, the fish can go into the small streams created by the riffles and banks to feed and grow and then return to the main river. Kimble added that when the push-up dams are removed, the fishing gets better.
The last site to be visited was the Sims Creek slough diversion project. This site is closer to residences in north Evanston and the landowners; Lowham Ranch, Hollingshead Ranch and Jay Gee Brothers. Construction will begin on this site in 2024 and the design is 60% completed.
The concern with the Bear River adjacent to the Sims Creek slough diversion is an unstable, aggrading stream where sediment supply and stream power are out of balance. This imbalance has led to rapid channel migration, resulting in land loss for private landowners and excessive sediment being added into the Bear River.
Also, a riverwide push-up dam has to be installed into the river each year to divert water into the canal. It is estimated that bank erosion and the creation of the push-up dam has contributed 752 tons of sediment annually. The push-up dam and bank erosion in this area have contributed to the Bear River being listed on the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality list for suspended sediment.
The push-up dam also creates a barrier for migration of native fish species including the Bonneville cutthroat trout and bluehead sucker, which are considered species of greatest conservation need by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The proposal is to rebuild the diversion dam and create a permanent solution that will be fish-passable at all flows and to restore 11,700 feet of streambank using natural channel design techniques.
The intent is to use toe wood to stabilize the banks, rock J-hooks, and cross vanes which will help protect the riverbanks while also returning the river back to a natural state. When construction is completed, natural vegetation will be planted in the construction area.
“Eventually, this site will look more like the Booth diversion we just left,” Kimble said. “Fish need a variety of habitat and the way this site is, it does not provide that. We hope to begin in 2024 and it may take a couple of years to complete. The weather in April is a factor as to when we can start.”
Trout Unlimited has been working on restoration efforts in the Bear River Watershed for nearly two decades. The entire watershed comprises approximately 7,500 square miles and crosses state boundaries five times on its journey to the Great Salt Lake. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), along with critical funding from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are supporting conservation projects throughout the watershed.
Upper Bear River Project Manager Mike Fiorelli summed up the tour with these words to the Uinta County Herald, “I think the tour was an excellent opportunity to see the number of partnerships that must be created to get something like a diversion rebuild completed. Trout Unlimited wouldn’t be able to finish projects without the cooperation of private landowners, state and federal agencies, local conservation districts, contractors and nonprofit organizations. These projects provide direct benefit to the local communities by improving water quality, providing jobs, improving agricultural operations, and creating improved habitats for fish and wildlife species.”