Jeff Streeter on a stretch of the Encampment River before restoration
By Randy Scholfield
The Encampment River near Saratoga, Wyoming, is a classic dry-fly wild trout fishery, with incredible bug life (there’s a famous Green Drake hatch) and big browns and rainbows lurking in the pools. But it’s also a popular, hard-working river that has suffered decades of hard use.
That’s why Trout Unlimited is digging in here to make a difference.
On a recent trip, I stopped in the small town of Riverside to meet Jeff Streeter, a veteran local fishing guide who is TU’s project manager for the North Platte basin. We drove out to see a nearby stretch of the Encampment where TU is spearheading an ambitious, multi-year restoration effort.
Historically, Jeff explained, the Encampment River has seen some heavy impacts—at the turn of the last century, a railroad tie-hacking industry flourished here. To transport the ties, it was common practice to temporarily dam the river, then open it up and flush the ties down, widening and battering the river banks. Many in-stream obstacles (read: fish habitat) were dynamited to expedite operations.
“The instream structure was . . . simplified,” Streeter says, with pointed understatement.
Channelization, mine dredging, diversions—over the years, the impacts took a heavy toll on healthy river functions and flows.
We parked the truck and walked to a stretch of river that had several hundred feet of steep, crumbling banks.
“This is a very unstable reach,” he said. In 2010 alone, the bank eroded more than 40 feet. Downstream, soil loss has created a deposit of sediment and cobble midstream, forming a huge rock bar. Upstream, a steep riffle cut right into the foot of the bank, slowly undermining a large cottonwood tree—a rare clump of vegetation on this otherwise bare bank.
“It’s a mess,” said Streeter, pointing to the channel. “See how wide and shallow it is? At 85 degrees, this will warm up fast, stressing fish. There’s algae that has taken hold.”
He walked to the edge of the eroding bank.
“See those cracks? This bank is next to go.”
Simply put, this stretch of river is out of whack and, in its present shape, is functioning below its potential as a fishery. Unless these problems are addressed, he said, the river will continue to erode the bank, taking out productive agricultural land and creating sediment bars that eventually will force the river to change course.
Streeter on a nearby stretch of riverbank that has been restored by TU and partners
In 2010, Streeter and Christina Barrineau, an aquatic habitat biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish, began hatching plans to stabilize the channel and put the river’s health back on course. TU and WDGF agreed to partner on the project, and hired a restoration firm to design plans.
I ask about orange survey stakes crisscrossing the existing river path and bank. That’s where the new river path will go.
The plan, Streeter explained, is to move this bank back 15 feet or so, anchoring it with woody debris and toe-wood. That will narrow the channel and give it the energy to transport sediment through the reach.
That’s what healthy rivers do—move cobble and rocks downstream, refreshing the riverbottom and its aquatic habitat.
As with many TU restoration projects, it’s all about partnerships. The $700,000 project is made possible by a collaboration between TU, the local landowner--Brush Creek Ranch--Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund. Others donors include the Forest Service Resource Activity Council, Stantec Consulting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Saratoga/Encampment/Rawlins Conservation District, the Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative, the Platte Valley Chapter of TU, a local Boy Scout troop, and the Encampment elementary school (whose kids came out and planted willows).
Last year, the partners completed the first phase of the project, just 100 yards or so upstream—it’s the “After” picture and model of what this eroded stretch should look like after restoration. We walked up to look at the restored stretch, which just a few years ago suffered similar erosion and channel problems.
The contrast is startling. Here, TU and Wyoming Game and Fish brought in a trackhoe to regrade the river bank, dig deeper pools, create narrower, stable riffles, and make the meanders less extreme.
He pointed to toe-wood—large logs buried deep in the bank, their ends sticking into the stream. The woody rakes slow the current, catch sediment to stabilize banks, and serve as great fish habitat, too.
It took about 500 dump truck loads of cobble, gravel and sand to build up this eroded bank, he said. The crew placed rocks instream to create pools and increase riffle velocity.
We looked at one deep pool—even in bright sunlight, you couldn’t see the bottom.
“This pool is now six feet deep,” Jeff says. “It’s great summer refuge from the heat and winter refuge, too. There are big fish in there.”
The new bank looked a bit raw and bare, but Streeter pointed out willow clumps planted, and the bank has been seeded with native grasses and forbs.
“It looks a bit contrived right now, but in a few years, this will look natural again.”
Across the river, project partners created a wetland out of an old oxbow section of river—this will provide excellent off-channel rearing habitat for juvenile fish and refuge for adult fish. The river improvements will benefit a variety of wildlife: eagles, mule deer, mink and muskrat.
Landowners win, too: Slowing down the channel helps recharge the underlying water table, keeping riparian areas, and adjoining pastures, lush and well-watered.
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The week after my visit with Jeff, TU and project partners launched construction on this second phase of project, tackling the eroded stretch that he showed me. During September, they trucked in load after load of fill cobble and moved the bank to narrow the channel, placed toe-wood and instream rocks, and restored riparian habitat. More trees, shrubs, and vegetation will be planted in the coming year, and the restoration elements will be watched and tweaked, depending on how the river responds.
So far, they’ve restored about a mile of river. There’s more to come: A neighboring ranch owner recently stopped by to see the improvements. He was impressed, and agreed to let TU restore the river through his property—another 1,500 linear feet of improvements, slated to get under way next year. “This will help us keep the momentum going,” said Streeter. To that end, the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund, after a recent site visit, pledged to seek funding for an ongoing, watershed-level conservation plan for the Encampment.
The Encampment River is a popular wade and float fishery. But the fishing will be even better in years to come, thanks to TU’s restoration efforts here. “This river is fished and fished hard. The improvements will make the river more healthy and resilient,” Streeter told me.
This is what Trout Unlimited is all about—making sure that special places like the Encampment remain great places to fish, far into the future.
Randy Scholfield is communications director for TU’s Western Water Project.