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Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5016

Prepared in cooperation with the Eugene Water & Electric Board and
The Nature Conservancy

Development of an Environmental Flow Framework for the McKenzie River Basin, Oregon

By John Risley, J. Rose Wallick, Ian Waite, and Adam Stonewall

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (5 MB) Abstract

The McKenzie River is a tributary to the Willamette River in northwestern Oregon. The McKenzie River is approximately 90 miles in length and has a drainage area of approximately 1,300 square miles. Two major flood control dams, a hydropower dam complex, and two hydropower canals significantly alter streamflows in the river. The structures reduce the magnitude and frequency of large and small floods while increasing the annual 7-day minimum streamflows. Stream temperatures also have been altered by the dams and other anthropogenic factors, such as the removal of riparian vegetation and channel simplification. Flow releases from one of the flood control dams are cooler in the summer and warmer in the fall in comparison to unregulated flow conditions before the dam was constructed. In 2006, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality listed a total of 112.4, 6.3, and 55.7 miles of the McKenzie River basin mainstem and tributary stream reaches as thermally impaired for salmonid rearing, salmonid spawning, and bull trout, respectively.

The analyses in this report, along with previous studies, indicate that dams have altered downstream channel morphology and ecologic communities. In addition to reducing the magnitude and frequency of floods, dams have diminished sediment transport by trapping bed material. Other anthropogenic factors, such as bank stabilization, highway construction, and reductions of in-channel wood, also have contributed to the loss of riparian habitat. A comparison of aerial photography taken in 1939 and 2005 showed substantial decreases in secondary channels, gravel bars, and channel sinuosity, particularly along the lower alluvial reaches of the McKenzie River. In addition, bed armoring and incision may contribute to habitat degradation, although further study is needed to determine the extent of these processes. Peak streamflow reduction has led to vegetation colonization and stabilization of formerly active bar surfaces. The large flood control dams on Blue River and South Fork McKenzie River likely have had the greatest effect on downstream habitats because these sediment and flood-rich tributaries historically contributed a disproportionate volume of bed material, wood, and peak flows in comparison with the spring-fed tributaries of the upper McKenzie River basin.

The ecological effects of the dams were examined by focusing on nine exemplar aquatic and terrestrial species, including spring Chinook salmon, bull trout, Oregon chub, Pacific and western brook lamprey, red-legged frog, western pond turtle, alder, and cottonwood. The changes caused by the dams to streamflow hydrograph affect all these and other species in complex ways, although a few commonalities are apparent. A loss of channel complexity in the McKenzie River basin, which is associated with the reduction in flood events and widespread channel stabilization, is the primary factor related to the observed population declines for all nine exemplar species. The dams also have caused direct ecological effects by blocking access to habitat, changing the amount and timing of available critical habitat, and changing water temperature during important seasons for different life stages.

First posted February 8, 2010

For additional information contact:
Director, Oregon Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2130 SW 5th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97201

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Suggested citation:

Risley, John, Wallick, J.R., Waite, Ian, and Stonewall, Adam, 2010, Development of an environmental flow framework for the McKenzie River basin, Oregon: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5016, 94 p.

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