Portneuf project

U.S. Forest Service Hydrologist Brad Higgins sprays water into the hole dug by Tara Hicks Friday morning. The hole is filled with recycled willow along the bank of the new stream being built at the mouth of the Pebble Creek about 15 miles north of Lava Hot Springs.

    LAVA HOT SPRINGS — Hydrologist Brad Higgins and other members of the U.S. Forest Service began work this past Monday on a project designed to restore the natural flow for one of the three distributaries of Pebble Creek that feed into the Portneuf River.

    After decades of flowing through artificial banks, the channel will soon be restored to a natural state by the numerous partners in a natural approach to bringing the Portneuf River back to its former glory, called the Portneuf River Project.

    Higgins, aided by the help of an excavator and dump truck, continued work Friday aiming to bring the natural beauty of a once thriving stream back to the Pebble Creek area.

    “Our objective is to improve water quality by reducing erosion, the amount of sediment that reaches the Portneuf River and improving fish habitats. It’s really important for fish from the river to make it up to the forest for a spawning habitat,” Higgins said.

    Today, the creek flows as a canal-like channel for a mile and a half through the Holsten family cattle ranch. The other two distributaries are adjacent to the one where work is currently taking place. Plans for the more northern stream, still on the Holsten family property, will commence next year. The third, and most southern stream, is also on private land but not owned by Holstens. Plans are still pending on the most southern stream.

     Bud Smalley, president of the Carriboo Conservancy and the Portneuf River Project said the planning for this project began years ago after an aerial photo from 1941 was discovered and showed the natural meandering and flow of the stream. When compared to a more recent photo the differences between the stream flow was stark.

    “When we found that 1941 photo, that was kind of like our a-ha moment, it was like — oh, exactly, it reaffirmed what we were thinking that this thing should have more meanders in it,” Higgins said. “That was basically the design for our design pattern right there, what better design than nature.”

    The issue at the time was that all three distributaries of Pebble Creek ran from U.S. Forest Service land on to private land before ending up in the Portneuf River.

    Smalley reached out to the Holsten family about the project and after discussions with Michel Holsten and his wife Roxie they didn’t find much downside to granting their consent for the creek restoration.

    The photographic proof that the once-thriving stream naturally meandered through his property without any complications was the closer.

    “(Michael Holsten) realized he was looking at what could be a greatly improved stream, water quality and land value,” Smalley said. “He said, ‘Put it back the way it used to be.’”

    The project intends to line the creek with fencing to keep their cattle out, but they’ll also be digging a separate well for water for the livestock and horses, so they don’t have to rely on the stream as their main water source.

    The plan also entails planting new grass, shrubs and recycled willow from the property to reduce erosion, promote healthy vegetation and create diverse habitat.

    Although the current channel has been there a long time, and currently has its own habitat, it wont take long for the new stream to assert itself and begin helping everything around it.

    “Immediately you’ll have a more complex habitat, by that I mean you will have a diversity of habitats,” Higgins said. “What you have now is a straight stream with riffles for much of its length, no slow water. You need that diversity of habitat for the fish, other insects and vegetation.”

    According to Idaho Fish and Game, fish populations typically triple when channelized waterways are restored to a natural state, with pools and meanders.         

    The total cost of the Pebble Creek project is estimated at $175,000, and gets its funding from many sources including: U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, Portneuf River Project, Caribou Conservancy, Portneuf River Soil and Water Conservation District, Idaho Fish and Game and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

    But according to Higgins none of this would be possible without a handful of key people.

    “Bud Smalley is the key guy,” Higgins said. “He first brought us out here and really got people talking about what the possibilities of this piece of land were. He’s a great guy for getting private land owners excited about doing stuff on their land.” Higgins said Chris Bench of the Portneuf River Soil and Water Conservation District and Michael and Roxie Holsten, who allowed the work on their property, were also critical.

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