Reconnecting Fish Creek - Sharing Values and the Burden

Sometimes we are left with a mess.  I was recently talking to Charles, one of the landowners involved in our Fish Creek Reconnection project in Utah's Weber River Basin.  He was telling me about how his family was left with a serious problem.  “People kept telling me that we needed to do something about this, but we didn’t have the resources to fix it.  Besides, we wouldn't know where to start anyway!”  What was the problem?  A culvert. 

The Fish Creek culvert before complete failure in 2010.

Not just a culvert, but over 100 feet of failing culvert with over 35 feet of road fill on top of it.  In addition to that, the creek downstream of the culvert had downcut approximately 6 feet, completely blocking fish passage to upstream spawning and rearing habitat.  Even if the landowners were able to move all that material and pull out the culvert, it still would have released a headcut to move up Fish Creek.  Everytime I drove over the culvert I just shook my head.  How could something like this have been constructed.  The problems were easy to point out, but a solution was much more challenging to find. 

So what is the story behind this culvert?  Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was an oil rush in Utah’s Summit County.  This 2008 article in the Park Record highlights the field working conditions back then. Much of the development occurred on private land and there was little regard for the property owners’ operations or values that they held in the land, let alone things like fish habitat and passage.  It was a race to get the wells and jacks installed as quickly as possible and facilitate the heavy machinery into those areas.  The South Fork of Chalk Creek and its tributary, Fish Creek, didn’t escape this fate. 

An old valve as part of the infrastructure developed during the oil boom. 

At some point during this time period, the companies needed to access well locations in the middle of the Fish Creek subwatershed.  The primary challenge at the time was getting the heavy equipment up the steep road grades, so they threw in a culvert and (literally) tons of fill over the top of it to cross the entire Fish Creek floodplain on a flat, but elevated pitch.  Of course the oil boom has long since passed.  The original energy companies are long gone and the landowners were left with this massive challenge. 

A Weber River Bonneville cutthroat trout.

Why is Chalk Creek so important?  This major tributary to the Weber River holds one of the last remaining Bonneville cutthroat trout strongholds, almost entirely free of nonnative fish, and Fish Creek is an important piece of that puzzle.  Strongholds like Chalk Creek and its tributaries are special places that we can’t ignore because they serve as critical spawning and rearing habitat for native cutthroat.  Protecting the health of tributaries like Chalk Creek has cascading effects downstream into the Weber River, providing enhanced fishing opportunities for anglers in this popular fishery. 

After becoming aware of this culvert, TU staff reached out to the landowners in 2011.  Unfortunately, by that time, the culvert was well on its way to complete failure.  The floodwaters during that massive 2011 spring runoff event undermined the culvert and sadly much of the road fill fell into Fish Creek.  Nevertheless, even after the failure, the challenges were just as daunting.  The road provided ranch access to several landowners and one single section of culvert remained in place to hold the 6 foot headcut in place.  This was a problem that no single organization or person could resolve, it would require collaboration.

A panoramic view of the culvert failure in 2011

In cooperation with the landowners and a broad partnership that included private organizations such as Orvis and agency partners such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, we developed the Fish Creek restoration project with 3 primary goals in mind:

  • Restore fish passage to allow cutthroat and other species access to 7 miles of upstream habitat
  • Stabilize the headcut and hillslopes to reduce fine sediment entering Fish Creek
  • Restore passage for vehicles by constructing a full spanning bridge 

But the clock was ticking.  By the time we removed the culvert during March of 2014, very little soil was holding it in place.  Further failure would have allowed the headcut to continue moving upstream further into the Fish Creek watershed, contributing more sediment to Chalk Creek and degrading the already tenuous habitat in the Chalk Creek watershed.  After extensive design iterations we decided on a restoration approach that included 4 constructed riffles that would step the stream down 6 feet over approximately 500 feet of stream.  This natural channel design restored the connection between Fish Creek and its receiving water, the South Fork of Chalk Creek.  When the culvert was removed last week, it represented a huge victory for the landowners, our watershed and fish living in Chalk Creek.  With the removal of this culvert, 7 miles of Fish Creek were reconnected to the South Fork of Chalk Creek, building resiliency into our watershed and the native fish populations, and developing a collaborative win-win solution with agricultural producers.

Removing the remaining culvert section, representing a huge victory for our watershed.

Reconstructing the channel at the location of the old culvert.

A reconstructed riffle below the old culvert. 

Final creek alignment at the old culvert location. 

A panoramic view of Fish Creek after the culvert failure in 2011.

A panoramic view of Fish Creek immediately after construction.

We express our appreciation to the Gillmor family for their collaboration.  Thanks to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Western Native Trout Initiative, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Utah Association of Conservation Districts, the Utah Division of Water Quality, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District and Orvis through their 1,000 Miles Campaign for funding.  Special thanks to McMillen LLC in Boise, ID for designing this project and Flare Construction in Coalville, UT for building this project.

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