Major phase of Ohop Creek restoration reaches important milestone

A sign at the entrance to Kjelstad Road East near Eatonville is covered with the logos of more than a dozen agencies and companies. It’s a visual snapshot of the comprehensive partnership that’s made the Ohop Creek restoration possible.

The project is aimed at improving habitat for Puget Sound chinook salmon, which is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The overall goal is to restore as many as 6 miles of the creek, at an estimated cost of $8 million-$10 million.

Ohop Creek is one of the three streams that support chinook in the Nisqually River watershed. The others are the Nisqually itself and the Mashel River.

“This is one of the priority habitat areas,” said Chris Ellings, salmon recovery manager for the Nisqually Indian Tribe, which is the lead agency on the project.

The Ohop Creek restoration started in 2009, but the overarching watershed recovery plan dates to 1999.

The tribe partnered with the Nisqually Land Trust and several county, state and federal agencies to draft a recovery plan for chinook in the Nisqually River. Ohop Creek was rolled into the mix in 2005.

Restoration of the creek is important because a large population of fish could be lost in a major flood or other catastrophe, Ellings said. The creek’s habitat is vital to restoring historic distribution — a primary factor in recovering salmon populations.

Construction on the $2.21 million second phase of the three-phase project started in June. Work on the 1.4 miles of stream is expected to be finished by next summer, Ellings said.

Crews from Port Orchard-based RV Associates dug a new channel to “re-meander” the creek last week, with workers diverting the stream from the old canal to the new one. Ellings said it will improve water flow and habitat diversity, as well as control flooding.

He said redirecting the water was an “ambitious” project that required “tricky” engineering.

The original, straight channel was ditched decades ago to aid agriculture in the area. It resulted in a deep, short canal and quicker water flows, that aren’t suitable for salmon.

After the water was redirected last week, about 25 workers and volunteers with boots and buckets moved amphibious creatures to the new channel before filling in the old one with dirt.

“There’s a lot of cutting edge pieces to (the project),” said Joe Kane, executive director of the Nisqually Land Trust.

Kane’s agency has worked with landowners to acquire property for the restoration project.

He said the Land Trust purchased about 112 acres for the most recent phase of the project from Steven Burwash, a 93-year-old who lives at the end of Kjelstad Road.

Burwash used the property for dairy farming, but flooding made it difficult. The longtime resident of the property told officials from the various agencies that “this is the right way to send this farm out,” Kane said.

Property is still being acquired for the restoration project’s next phase, which is still roughly 5-10 years from completion.

“This is a very long-range project,” Ellings said. “We only have a few projects left, but they all happen to be really big.”

The first phase of the project, completed in 2011 and covering about 250 acres along 1 mile of the creek upstream from the current project, provides a preview of what the current work site will look like several years from now.

The creek is surrounded by overgrowth, which was planted but has since spread along the banks, looking as though it’s always been there.

“You can hardly tell it was a pasture,” Ellings said.

Despite the challenge of piecing together odd grant-funding amounts, Ellings said, all the agencies involved have worked well together to maintain a smooth process.

“We’ve been really successful in rallying these groups toward a common vision,” Ellings said. “We have such a clear road map.”