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The Mill Creek restoration project.

The Round Valley Indian Reservation lies within the Coast Range of northern California and is essentially surrounded by salmonid-bearing river systems: the Eel River (mainstem, Middle Fork, and North Fork), Williams Creek, and Hulls Creek. The original treaty boundary, established in 1856, encompassed nearly 150,000 acres (61,000 hectares). Today, however, the reservation consists of about 30,000 acres (12,000 ha) scattered in a checkerboard of sections across the original expanse. It serves as home to a confederation of seven tribes (Yuki, Wylaki, Nomalaki, Pomo, Pit River, Concow, and Little Lakes) collectively known at the Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT). Within these 30,000 acres, the tribe has stewardship responsibilities over a wide range of fish and wildlife species, several of which are found on the federal and state endangered species lists.


Mill Creek, like many river systems in the Northwest, was once a healthy stream used by large numbers of Chinook salmon (Onchorhynchus tshawytscha ) and steelhead (0. mykiss) as their natal stream. Today, only a much smaller number of salmon and steelhead return to Mill Creek. But the RVIT has undertaken an ambitious multi-year stream restoration effort, the Mill Creek Stream Restoration Project (SRP), to restore a section of the creek and the wildlife it once supported.

The Problem

Essentially, Mill Creek is a single channel stream about 60 feet (18 meters) wide capable of supporting surface water flow (and fish life) during the summer months and a functional riparian corridor along both banks. While much of the habitat within Mill Creek is viable, a significant section has suffered extensive bank erosion during the past several decades. Over time, the 2.4 mile (3.8-kilometer) section to be covered by the restoration project area had become a highly braided, multi-channel system with a bank width of about 700 feet (215 m). This section became incapable of maintaining surface water flow during the summer and had virtually no riparian vegetation. The result was such severe ecological damage that this reach of Mill Creek became a deathtrap for all aquatic life in summer as the surface flow went subterranean.

While the RVIT served as the lead agency for the design and implementation of the stream rehabilitation project, it was the cooperation and support by outstanding individuals within federal and state agencies (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, FishAmerica Foundation, and the California Department of Fish and Game), as well as the support from the Tribal Council, local schools, and the community as a whole, that ultimately turned the tide to make the project a success.

The Solution

The Mill Creek Project had myriad technical, ecological, fiscal, and other issues to contend with for a project of this size and complexity. One of the key concepts for the project was to maintain a holistic approach in coordinating each of the individual components. A second was finding the balance between what the data said we could do and what Mill Creek was indicating we needed to do. We collected "hard" data extensively from throughout the project area using methods described in the California Department of Fish and Game's California Salmonid Stream Habitat Restoration Manual (2nd Ed). We also collected "soft" data by talking with tribal elders who remember what Mill Creek was like when they were children, when they could jump across the creek and catch fish in the summer.

After analyzing the data and contemplating stream gradients, substrate materials, sinuosity ratios, hydrographs, and other factors that describe stream behavior, we toured the project area to see what the creek had done in the past, what it was currently doing, and what it would probably do the next winter, basing our observations on deposition and erosion patterns from the past winter. We combined the patterns in a delicate balance to determine what the creek indicated to us that it "wanted" to do. (Yes, I am a scientist, but I believe there are some things about a stream's unique nature that numbers and models cannot convey.)


In 2001, Phase I of the project restored nearly 2,700 feet (825 m) of the stream's primary channel. At the same time, almost 3,000 feet (915 m) of the braided side channels were modified or taken out of the stream's active use, except in the case of high water events. In such cases, the rising water enters the side channels and encounters a series of brush baffles that slow down the water flow, allowing the deposition of suspended sediments to fill in and stabilize areas within the floodplain. In 2002, we implemented Phase II of the project, nearly 3,000 feet of primary channel development and almost 3,500 feet (1,065 m) of side channel modifications.

Phase III in 2003 was a rebuild of Phase II, which was necessary due to insufficient funding, which meant that we were unable to purchase enough boulder riprap to finish armoring the turns in the river, and a flood event that caused the river to "zig" instead of "zag."


The re-build of Phase III went well, and the next year's Phase IV efforts incorporated approximately 4,800 feet (1,465 m) of primary and side channel work. Phase V saw the introduction of a new agency member, an engineer who advised that we not go so high up the bank with the boulder riprap in the corners as we had in previous phases. Despite our concerns, we felt compelled to follow the advice. That winter, the Pacific Northwest was hit by the 2006 "New Years Day Flood," which erased most of Phase V's results. The work done in Phases I - IV, on the other hand, held up well against the storm. The summer of 2006 involved rebuilding Phase V (with additional rock riprap) and the implementation of Phase VI, based on the original methods used since Phase I.

One thing that has contributed to the success of this project has been our practice of keeping an eye on the project area after each winter and fine-tuning any specific sites that have the potential for enhancement. This approach adds a tremendous amount of stability to the project for a relatively small additional investment of time and material.

What really makes this project so interesting to us is the way the Tribal Natural Resources Department (NRD) grew in conjunction with the implementation of the Mill Creek SRP. The Tribal Fisheries and Wildlife Program was only in its second year of existence when the Mill Creek SRP was initiated, but today the NRD has three tractors, one excavator, one backhoe, two dump trucks, a water truck, a service vehicle, and several pickup trucks. In addition to the equipment necessary to implement the project, a greenhouse was needed to start propagating the many native trees needed to revegetate the 4.8 miles (7.7 km) and 52 acres (21 ha) of stream bank associated with the Mill Creek SRP. The tribe has devised a system to water several hundred trees in a fairly short time, which will prove to be a critical component of reestablishing a riparian corridor within the barren floodplain that currently exists throughout the project area.

The Results So Far

To date, we have seen an increase in the amount of time that surface water flows through the project area into the summer months, as well as the return of water flow earlier in the fall months. With the increased quality of the instream habitat, salmon and steelhead are spawning and producing fry. The tribe has conducted an emergency fish rescue operation within project area for the past couple of years, and the number of steelhead being rescued from the reach as it begins to dry up and transported to locations upstream or downstream have been showing an upward trend (although fish production is highly variable depending on amount, timing and frequency of rainfall, among other issues), which we hope will continue. Reestablishing the riparian corridor is a slow process; it will take years to become functional in terms of shading, bank stabilization, and other factors. As it proceeds, the participation of schools in the tree planting efforts, combined with the Adopt-a-Watershed Program, will help kids gain a better understanding of the delicate balance that exists between people and natural resources, and the effects that we all can have on that balance.


The tribe has invited a graduate student to document our approach of combining the hard and soft sciences for restoring Mill Creek. I hope that the success we've seen so far in Mill Creek will inspire other tribal, state, and federal agencies to use innovative approaches for restoring other degraded streams. We found that restoration is almost as much art as it is science. As a quote on my wall so eloquently states, "Streambank stabilization ain't rocket science, it is way more complex than that, with many more variables and unknowns." So listen to what the stream is telling you--it will tell you what the numbers can't--but balance it with what the numbers can.


Warren Mitchell (wmitchell@; 707) 983-8341) is the fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, Round Valley Indian Tribes, in Covelo, California.

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Author:Mitchell, Warren
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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