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A Muddy Reconstruction

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Photo by Kathy Cousins, IDFG Photo by Kathy Cousins, IDFG

Rebuilding the Pack River Delta

Many eyes have ogled the Pack River Delta over the winter, drawn to the earth moving machines, the mud, and the seemingly strange activity taking place in the middle of this distinguished river. Is it a new challenging hole for future golfers? Is it a new club house? Could it be a colossal new mansion? An airport? A community dock?

What may look like a scary new development at the height of the mud season is really a restoration project. Many partners came together a couple of years ago to tackle the Pack River Delta—last winter the lake level was too high to attempt to move too much dirt, so they waited for this winter when the lake level was drawn down the full eleven feet.

The Pack River Delta lies just off of Highway 200 between Sandpoint and Hope; it signals the confluence of the second largest tributary to Lake Pend Oreille—the Pack River. The Pack River drains over 185,000 acres, and provides key spawning and rearing habitat, as well as a migration corridor, for native trout. It is utilized by a myriad of wildlife, including elk, deer, moose, beaver, and many species of waterfowl and is also a local favorite for recreational opportunities such as kayaking, canoeing, hiking, wildlife viewing, fishing, and hunting. The Pack River Delta is comprised of 574 acres of the slow and deep meandering of the Pack River, dotted with wetlands formed by old oxbows.

What is wrong with the delta that warrants this kind of magnificent earth moving? Due to the operation of Albeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River, the lake experiences artificial fluctuations in water levels; this act, in essence, inhibits the delta from acting like a delta. When the lake is full in the summer, the dam holds the water higher than natural levels for a longer period of time. Prior to the Albeni Falls Dam, constructed in 1952, there was considerably more habitat for fish and wildlife, and the Pack meandered through the Delta, but now it has straightened out.

The natural falls at the site of the dam today were known as Albeni Falls. Before the dam was constructed, the islands adjacent to the falls impeded the flow of spring runoff from melting mountain snows, causing upstream Lake Pend Oreille to raise and flood. It wasn’t until mid to late summer when the lake would naturally lower to its minimum level. In addition to flood control, the U.S. Corps of Engineers that manages Albeni Falls cites an increased need for water storage and power production to support the growing shipbuilding and aluminum industries downriver in the 1950s. With the increased channel capacity, spring flood levels were considerably reduced on the lake.

The construction and operation of the Albeni Falls Dam resulted in the loss of approximately 6,600 acres of wetlands and 8,900 acres of deepwater marsh. Most of these wetlands and marsh habitats were flooded and converted to open water; therefore large shallow water areas that once provided an abundant source of waterfowl forage were no longer available.

“Through the last fifty-plus years of the dam, erosion has occurred in the Delta,” explains Idaho Department of Fish & Game Mitigation Biologist Kathy Cousins. “This washes all of the nutrients [from the Pack River] right to the bottom of Lake Pend Oreille.”

The project is enhancing the delta by building up the islands, increasing the sediment deposition in the delta proper, slowing down the water at the confluence of the lake and the river, and augmenting the native plant community. Eight of the islands in the delta are being raised up.   

This project will increase the height and stability of the land exposed at full summer pool. It will improve the functionality of the ecosystem, allowing the sediment to collect in the fan-like delta instead of being released to the bottom of Lake Pend Oreille. This project will also exponentially increase the amount of land available to wildlife—particularly migratory birds—all year long.   

“We think this project will be successful because the Pack River is not dammed,” says Cousins. “Over 200,000 pounds of sediment come down the Pack; it also carries huge logs and large woody debris—we want the debris to get caught in the delta!”

What was, just last year at high pool, 50 acres of open water, will now be habitat in the form of earthen islands, sitting a minimum of two feet higher than full pool. The contractors in the delta are utilizing both known and new technologies for aquatic restoration projects. Some of these technologies include: Log vanes, willow bundles, bankfull benches, fascines, rootwad roughness structures with pole plantings, engineering log jams, and “geotube” breakwaters.  The project is designed to withstand a “100-year storm event,” an extreme hydrologic event such as a flood, with a 100-year recurrence interval..In other words, a flood of that magnitude has a one percent chance of happening in any year.

“These technologies will allow sediments to fall out and deposit in the delta [before reaching the lake],” says Cousins. “The water hits the rootwads and slows as it passes through.”

Breakwaters are used to protect the shore from the full impact of wave action in a large water body. They are, traditionally, stone or concrete structures. In the Pack River Delta, project leaders are utilizing “geotubes,” a fairly new technology usually used in marine environments; this new technology will be compared to a traditional rock breakwater. A geotube is a semi-permeable membrane that fills up with dirt and water, but releases the water and holds the mud and silt—making it solid over time. They are commonly used to rebuild beaches, create jetties, or even build entire islands. In the delta, the plants will be grown atop the geotube—making it literally a vegetative breakwater.

The project is progressing nicely, though Cousins commented on a slow start due to big snowfall. “We’ve had our challenges this winter, but the cold weather has really helped us to build the islands.”  

Funding for this project comes from collaboration on a large scale. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act provides federal matching funds to public-private partnerships to conserve wetlands around the nation. In spring 2007, $1 million in NAWCA funds was awarded to Ducks Unlimited, the sponsor of the grant, for the delta project, as well as facilitating conservation easements with private landowners to further protect important habitat from development. Other major partners involved in this project include Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Avista Corporation.

The “match funds” provided for the project, totaling an impressive $2.5 million includes funding, property and in-kind work from fourteen different partners. In addition, $4.8 million in federal funds were provided as part of the overall project. Though the NAWCA grant awarded is large, the contribution of the partners is enormous.

For project implementation over the winter, a local contactor was selected. “The project provided employment during this economically tough time too,” says Cousins. “Now we have guys trained to construct engineered log structures locally.”

Cousins is working on getting the public involved in this project. During the month of April, she is soliciting school groups, commissioners, Legislators, stakeholder organizations, and citizens to assist with planting. They are looking to plant 60,000 native plants—and it all needs to happen before the water starts to come back up in May.  

Native trees and shrubs will be utilized for this project, and different species will be used at different levels—above the high water mark will be species such as willow, red-osier dogwood, gray alder, black cottonwood, and spirea. In the shallow water (zero-six inches) will be species such as northern water plantain, water sedge, and rushes. In the deeper water (six-eighteen inches) will be species such as spikerush, bur-reed, and common cattail.  

There are many eyes upon this project, and not just from curious passerby. If this project is successful in restoring the meandering Pack River and its delta, there could be wide-ranging applicability across the nation. Cousins herself has the next project in mind—the much larger Clark Fork Delta.

“In addition to the project, we have an extensive monitoring program,” says Cousins. “Does this work? How well does it work? Many people are interested in this project. This is unique; no one has tried it before.”

If you are free April 7-9 or 21-23 to assist with plantings in the delta, please contact Cousins at [email protected] or call (208)769-1414. Cabela’s is sponsoring a Dutch Oven cook-off, and there will surely be loads of activities taking place to kick-off a very productive season for the locally venerated Pack River.

Because of the amount of disturbance in the delta this winter with project construction, there is bound to be some mud.

“This year there is going to be a bit of a sediment plume because of the disturbance from construction, but after this year it will be normal again,” says Cousins. Really, they are hoping for better than normal—namely, a huge reduction in the amount of sediment released into Lake Pend Oreille from the Pack.  

Projects like this one benefit from the knowledge and support of the local community. Bring your buddies and grab some plants—it’s time to get your hands dirty.

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Author info

Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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