Wood debris from Sandy River flood will return to nature, become habitat for salmon and trout

Matt Buxton, The Oregonian

While crews clean up from last month's Sandy River floods, which destroyed homes and washed out roads, one group has found reason to celebrate.

The Freshwater Trust, a nonprofit that restores Oregon rivers, has received dozens of large trees that were caught in a massive logjam on the I-84 bridge construction near Troutdale. The group will use the logs to create habitats for rainbow trout and chinook and coho salmon in the Sandy River Basin.

Oregon Department of Transportation crews have spent the past three weeks clearing the logs, and the largest ones were donated to the restoration group.

ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy said he didn't know exactly how much wood had piled up at the bridge, but said "it was an extraordinary amount of wood and timber."

The logs will be an essential part of restoring rivers that have been damaged by timber harvesting, agriculture and other development, said Freshwater Trust spokeswoman Adrian McCarthy.

"Logs add habitat complexity to a river," she said, adding they help by "creating spawning pools, slowing stream flows, providing habitat for food sources for aquatic species and stabilizing banks. Nature had it right, and for whatever reasons we went in and cleared them out."

These trees will be placed in the Salmon River during low-water periods later this year.

Freshwater Trust has a number of other restoration projects throughout the Sandy River Basin and Oregon, which it completes with donated logs. The group has received trees from ODOT's other highway projects, along with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"Those logs -- if you purchase them -- are extremely expensive," McCarthy said. "So it's nice to be reusing something."

In a typical flood, the logs would flow into the Columbia River and to the Pacific Ocean, Murphy said, but the bridge construction blocked about 70 percent of the Sandy.

ODOT and the construction company were aware of the increased risk from the pilings, he said, and had heavy machinery ready to clear the jam.

The I-84 bridge is scheduled to be completed in 2013, and ODOT officials believe it should greatly reduce any future backups because it will have fewer pilings in the water.

Any leftover wood that's marketable will likely be ground into wood chips, Murphy said. The rest will return to the water system.

"Floods are still pretty traumatic for the natural area," McCarthy said, "but we can make the best of it."