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Colorado Gulch Habitat Transformed to Benefit Fish, Prevent Flood Damage
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Ryan Santo walks along a silt curtain built to keep sediment from muddying the river.
   
Friday, September 9, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Typically, the bend in the river at Colorado Gulch is a serene place for adults and children to skip stones, dip their toes in the water and maybe even snag a few trout.

But these past couple weeks the tranquility has been shattered by the rumble of backhoes and other trucks as they remove rock from the river bank and uproot aspen and cottonwood to create a new path in the woods.

A jetty created of bags filled with cobblestone stretches out into the Big Wood River containing the sediment that’s being stirred up so that it can’t contaminate the water rushing by in the Big Wood River.

 
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Workers have decommissioned the old road and are creating a new one deeper in the floodplain so it will be easier to maintain.
 

But, when all the work is done, this should become prime trout habitat, enthuses Ryan Santo.

“The Big Wood River has suffered a death of a thousand cuts all these years. This project is a perfect example of reversing bad practices that happened to the river and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat,” said Santo, who heads up river restoration projects for the Land Trust.

During the 50-year flood in 2017, floodwaters rushing downstream bounced up against the rock that lined a mining road that had been built right next to the river in the 1940s. This increased the velocity of the river as it tore around the bend. Floodwaters took out the bridge that crossed the river there, eroding its abutment, causing the bridge to collapse on itself.

And it washed out the road.

 
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Fallen trees are being used to stabilize the banks and improve trout habitat.
 

Workers have created a new pedestrian path away from the river that will be easier to maintain. They’ve removed about 1,300 cubic yads of river rubble called rip-rap that was originally put in to protect the Colorado Gulch road and bridge.

They’ve reopened the flood plain and reconnected a 1,200-foot-long side channel. And they’ve put in four woody debris structures using fallen trees to offer trout shade and further benefit trout habitat.

“The side channel will provide refuge for the fish. Restoring the flood plain revitalizes the habitat,” said Santo.

Santo said anglers will see more fish in the area now that the rip-rap is removed. A 1990 Fish and Game study showed that in rivers where rip-rap was replaced by woody debris saw 10 times more fish.

 
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A truck waters a path that will serve as a new pedestrian path to keep the dust down.
 

Unfortunately, he said, this is just a small portion of 21 miles of the Big Wood River that has been rip-rapped.

The $100,000 project was funded with the help of FEMA money Blaine County received for the 2017 flood, as well as monies from the Blaine County Land, Water and Wildlife Fund and the Trout and Salmon Foundation.

Colorado Gulch will reopen to walkers the beginning of next week.

The Land Trust will see how the river behaves during high water next spring before constructing a new bridge. The bridge, which will probably be similar to the bridge at Lake Creek, will have a longer span than the old one, which will make it less prone to damage during flooding.

 
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“I’m real interested to see how this turns out next June,” said Cory McCaffrey, who recently moved from Washington where he been involved in a similar project on the Walla Walla River.
 

It will be pedestrian-only.

“I would think we could get something in next year,” Santo said.

Santo said he is ecstatic to be bringing the project to a close.

“I come down here frequently because it provides such great access to the river. Knowing the impact of rip-rap and seeing it removed, knowing the culmination of years of hard work to get to this point…I feel great.”

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED

The Wood River Land Trust hopes to enlist volunteers in planting 40 cottonwood and 55 willows at the restoration site on Oct. 12. Details will be announced later.

The Wood River Land Trust will also have a River Clean Up at 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17. There will be stations at the Howard Preserve in Bellevue, Draper Preserve in Hailey and Town Square in Ketchum. A celebration after the cleanup will take place at Ketchum Town Square.

Sign up at https://woodriverlandtrust.org/connect/calendar/big-wood-river-clean-up?blm_aid=35372

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