Large Woody Debris

The Russian River Wild Steelhead Society’s first major project for the main stem of the Russian River is the introduction of large woody debris. Introduced at our January 2011 board meeting, the “Large Wood Enhancement” project was presented by the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The two-phase program calls first for the placement of “root wads up to 12-foot in diameter, some weighing as much as 6-tons” into carefully selected sites located over an eight-mile section of the Russian River between Healdsburg Memorial Beach and Wohler Bridge. The second phase involves the monitoring of these “root wads” as they interact within the river ecosystem.

Woody ImageUnder this project, the introduced “Large Woody Debris” (LWD) is not anchored and will have the potential to find its own resting place within the river system, most likely during the high flows of the rainy season. The implementation plan used 30 root wads in the first year and we placed them into ten locations in the eight-mile target stretch. As the root wads settle into the system they will enhance fish habitat, producing “scour holes” and creating over-summering holding places for juvenile fish. The selected sites have been chosen for their potential for habitat benefit. It is not expected that much dynamism (movement) will occur at these locations and that most of the root wads will remain within close proximity of where they are placed.

One of the problems with the Russian River is that the ecosystem has very little complexity, although it is much better now than it was 40 or 50 years ago. The dynamic wood introduction is an experimental project in an unnatural system. It is designed to replicate the natural addition of LWD that can still be observed in the very few remaining reaches of the Russian River where the redwood and conifer forest can still be found at the edge of the riverbank (example: Riverfront Park). At these locations, the forest naturally introduces dynamic wood into the river system where it finds a resting place and creates habitat for the fishery, while the large trees along the water’s edge also provide cover and shade. Unfortunately, much of the Russian River no longer has this necessary characteristic as most of the bank-side forest has been removed.

As the dynamic woody debris seeks a natural resting place, we may find that in some instances there will be significant movement of the root wads during high water and that some of the root wads may end up in the estuary. This is beneficial as the estuary is also in need of habitat enhancement through the introduction of woody debris. Visual monitoring, the important second phase of this program, will be a significant aspect as the program moves forward, with possible tagging of the individual root wads under consideration, although previous projects on the Gualala and Garcia Rivers have already experimented with different types of tagging, none of which were particularly successful.

Men Working on Project Image

This “Large Wood Enhancement” program is not without precedent and, on the Russian River, is different from any other LWD program that has been attempted. The key difference with this proposal is that the woody debris will not be anchored and will be allowed to move freely within the river system, finding natural resting places during periods of high flow. All other programs on the Russian River have involved anchored structure. Dynamic wood introduction programs have been instituted on other coastal rivers, including both the Gualala and Garcia Rivers, and these programs have proven successful for creating valuable fish habitat. A second unique aspect of the Russian River proposal is that the root wads will not be placed directly in the main stem river channel. Instead, they will be swung by crane over the toe from the top of the bank and gently placed into carefully selected sites. This approach is different from anything that has been tried on the Russian River in previous programs. It will also require the selected sites to have road access for light-crane operations.

The Russian River Wild Steelhead Society is the sole sponsor organization for the Large Wood Enhancement project. Our first step in this effort was to initiate the permit process, starting on the federal level with the Army Corps of Engineers 404 Application. This application opens the door for the other agencies to become involved. The 404 Application was immediately followed by the State 1600 Permit, which allowed the Department of Fish and Game to partner with us, along with NOAA and NMFS. Once these initial permits were procured, we began working on landowner agreements to allow implementation of the program at the selected sites.

The Large Wood Enhancement project is an extensive, multi-year proposal that has introduced our RRWSS Board to what is required to undertake a major project. We have learned that this does not happen quickly.

From time to time, other projects are presented to us by other organizations working in our Russian River watershed. These often only require volunteer labor, perhaps a day or weekend, to guarantee their success. If you would like to assist, please communicate your desires to one of our board members.

Steelhead in the Classroom

With the help of Trout Unlimited and the Department of Fish and Game, the Russian River Wild Steelhead Society has been able to sponsor a number of local schools for the Steelhead in the Classroom program. The program involves 5th, 6th and 7th grade-level students with raising steelhead from eggs to fry followed with the release of the steelhead fry back into the wild. The Warm Springs Fish Hatchery gives each class 30 eggs initially and each class “incubates” these eggs in a 10 gallon aquarium that is chilled to 52 degrees. It takes about 7 weeks for the fish to mature to the fry stage where they are large enough to be released. During the time that it takes for the fish to grow, the teachers educate the students on the Steelhead life cycle including the threats the fish undergo and the value of good habitat and habitat restoration. The kids learn the real value of our wild fish through fun activities and hands-on experience. Not only does this make our children good stewards, it also enables them to communicate with their parents and to educate others. Although the children are raising hatchery fish, the knowledge and understanding they gain about how our ecosystem works is priceless because, if our children never become aware of our fishery, how can we expect to change the outcome of its future?

Steelhead in the Classroom Children

It is hoped that this classroom experience will influence the education and development of tomorrow’s conservation stewards while also taking an active role, with the physical release of the fry into the Russian River system, to help make our watershed a more productive fishery.

With your generous donations, this educational program will certainly flourish. As we move forward, the Society will continue to update you on the progress of this program and will share the upcoming success stories that will surely accompany the education of our elementary school students within the Russian River Watershed.

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