Comments to DSL on tidally influenced streams

5 March 1998

Mr. Eric Metz
Policy and Planning Section
Division of State Lands
775 Summer St., NE
Salem, OR 97310

Dear Mr. Metz:

The Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society (ORAFS) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Division of State Land’s proposed administrative rules for maintaining tidally-influenced channelized streams and drainageways (OAR 141-89-00 et seq.) ORAFS is a volunteer organization of professionals in fisheries and aquatic sciences. We have over 500 members in Oregon, representing a diverse mix of scientists in federal, state, and tribal agencies, and in the private sector and higher education. One goal of our Chapter is to promote the application of sound science to resource management decisions. The Oregon Chapter supports effective stewardship and conservation to maintain healthy ecosystems and recover degraded ecosystems for wild fish populations.

We strongly urge the Division of State Lands (DSL) to consider the importance of low-gradient coastal streams connected to tidal wetlands and floodplain habitats to the conservation and restoration of Oregon’s fish and wildlife resources. We offer several specific and general comments concerning the opportunities presented by the proposed rules, and suggest that modified approaches could improve lowland, near-coastal habitat for many fish and wildlife species, including at-risk salmonids.

1. The proposed rule will expedite procedures for maintaining artificial channel habitats at a critical time when the state should seek ways to encourage the restoration of tidal wetland and floodplain habitats. Highly productive, low-gradient tidal streams, sloughs, and marsh habitats have been widely degraded throughout coastal Oregon to the detriment of many fish and wildlife species, including at-risk salmonids. The proposal generally will maintain the habitat status quo which has proven detrimental to Oregon’s aquatic ecosystems. We suggest that the need for expensive maintenance dredging or tidegate repair presents significant opportunities for DSL to promote strategies for habitat restoration. The proposed rules includes some safeguards to minimize environmental damage during maintenance procedures, but do not redress the damaging effects of channelizing tidal drainageways in the first place. Reference to habitat enhancement for salmonids “where feasible” (paragraph 3k) offers insufficient technical guidance or accountability to insure that any such efforts would be effective.

2. The standards for compliance with this proposal are based on the habitat features created through channelization rather than the habitat conditions needed to support productive fish and wildlife populations. For example, the proposal rightly emphasizes that “spoils . . . shall not be deposited in wetlands (paragraph 3b)” but also ignores the fact that the current uplands of many diked and channelized drainageways historically were wetlands. Similarly, we agree that maintenance projects and the timing of inwater activities should “not prevent or interfere with fish passage (paragraph 3e).” Yet tidegates repaired under this rule may be longstanding barriers to fish. In these cases, removing tidegates is more likely to restore fish passage and estuarine productivity than their repair or replacement (paragraph 3m). Finally, the proposed rule requires that material not be excavated “beyond the bounds of historical channel width and depth (3j).” Presumably this “historical” reference point again refers to the channelized stream rather than some baseline condition before the stream was originally excavated.

3. The rule affords little time for adequate environmental evaluation of proposed maintenance activities. Although applications to the DSL would also be sent to various resource-management agencies for their review, a 15-day period for response by the Division would likely preclude meaningful technical evaluation or on-site assessment. Moreover, it is unclear whether other state agencies would be afforded the staff or resources needed to rapidly evaluate applications filed under this measure.

We agree that certain environmental precautions should be undertaken during routine maintenance of artificial tidal channels. And, where environmental risks are minimal, rapid authorization of small-scale channel maintenance activities might be warranted. However, even if routine maintenance of channelized streams poses no new habitat damage, the environmental impact is not minimal. The status quo of degraded habitat that this rule tends to protect promotes continued salmonid decline. Protecting riparian vegetation or maintaining wood in channelized streams can only stabilize aquatic habitats within the current ecological potential, which is greatly impaired relative to historical (prechannelized) conditions.

Recovery of salmonid populations requires new ecological criteria and landowner incentives for restoring connections between low-gradient coastal streams and their former tidal wetland and floodplain habitats. The need for periodic channel maintenance affords a window of opportunity for the Division to encourage a new and higher conservation standard consistent with the important ecological services of intact coastal wetlands and tidal channels. Such services include flood control, nutrient cycling, filtering of pollutants, and the production of fish and wildlife populations. Rather than promoting maintenance of degraded channelized habitats, we recommend that the Division devise incentives for reconnecting straightened tidal streams to their historic meanders, removing tidal barriers, and restoring salt marsh and tidal swamp vegetation.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed rule.


Hal Weeks, President for the Executive Committee

c. Patty Snow, ODFW – Portland