Carbon County river restoration addresses 100-year history of use

RAWLINS – For the first time in 92 years, there is a 75-mile continuous stretch of unobstructed waterway on the Upper North Platte and the Encampment River.

This means trout can access seasonal habitat, boaters have a safer passage and private property has been saved from stream-bank erosion. 

It wasn’t always this way: For decades, the region was impacted by the logging industry, tie drives and man-made infrastructure that compromised the natural integrity of the river systems in Carbon County. Through over 20 projects done as a cooperative effort between the Wyoming Game and Fish, Trout Unlimited, the Saratoga-Encampment-Rawlins Conservation District (SERCD), grant and funding entities and landowners, that waterway has been restored.

“The point where we reconnected the Platte to the Encampment River, we were reconnecting 75 miles of water for the first time in 90 years,” Jeff Streeter, North Platte Project Manager for Trout Unlimited, said. “This was always my hope, but first of all, I never thought I would work for TU for this long, and I didn’t understand the pace of this work. It can take two years to get one hydrology weir out… but then, pretty soon people were coming to us to ask for help, so we were able to increase the pace.”

Currently under construction is the Riverside Phase Three project, on private property downstream from the Lazy Acres Campground in Riverside. 

Crews have temporarily re-routed the Encampment River through a side channel, while they do bank stabilization, channel realignment, and move headgates when necessary. Bank erosion can be curbed with something called “toe wood,” which is buried on a meander bend, and habitat can be improved when very large limestone boulders are buried in a “J hook” shape, creating deep pools in the river, reducing stream bank erosion and deflecting stream flow to the center of the channel.

The Riverside restoration began by resolving issues near Highway 230, where the river was trying to wash itself around the bridge. The river channel was also migrating such that it was eroding away at Lazy Acres property. There is science involved, certainly, to ensure that each rock and piece of wood is placed at a specific elevation, following an engineer’s detailed outline, to create a healthier waterway.

“But there is so much art to it as well,” said Joe Parsons, district manager for the Saratoga-Encampment-Rawlins Conservation District. “Sometimes, the river is telling us something different than we planned for.”

The first person to develop in-stream restoration, he said, painted the rocks in the same river year after year, noting each change or movement with his brush.

Upstream from the Riverside Phase Three project is the Cherokee/Wagoner project, which has been complete for nearly three years. River restoration there included the construction of 12 crossvein boulder structures to replace two push-up dams, which were disruptive for the river channel and blocked brown trout spawning in the fall.

“These are blue-ribbon trout fisheries that are economically and recreationally important fisheries within the state of Wyoming,” Christina Barrineau of the Laramie District of the Wyoming Game and Fish said.

Game and Fish wanted to be a part of helping to continue that fishery into the future.

“These projects — they impact fish passage, so that fish can access spawning grounds,” Barrineau said. “They also create better habitat, especially in low-water times to create a better refuge for fish during those stressful seasons.”

The Platte River runs much warmer than the Encampment, and in the summer fish move up the Encampment for thermal refuge, Streeter said.

“They are trying to get out of that warmer water. Now we have opened that up, so when you take these barriers out of a waterway, you have not only increased your population, but you have increased the resilience of that population. It can recover from events easier if it is reconnected,” he said.

“Let’s say above a hydrology weir, we had a fire in the forest, and it killed all the fish. How would that repopulate? Now that we’ve taken that out, fish can migrate after the fire and repopulate much easier,” he said.

People often look for a single reason as to why a waterway eroded to the point of reduced health, Parsons said. Historical land use practices definitely contributed. When logging crews wanted to drive ties down the river, the fastest way to do that was to channelize the river, removing structures that were good for fish habitat but obstructed the drives. The Game and Fish identified the Encampment and Platte as high-priority areas for stream restoration, Barrineau said, because the agency saw an opportunity in Carbon County.

“We saw this as an opportunity to work within a watershed to address (migration) barriers, as well as there are some habitat deficiencies in that waterway, like the accelerated stream bank erosion,” she said. “We also hoped to protect what we have and potentially make it better.”

Streeter said that the goal is to enhance trout aquatics while still delivering water to the users along the way.

“What we try to do is deliver the water to the water users, reduce the amount of stream-bank erosion for landowners, and improve public safety in a single channel, and through all that, create a better trout habitat,” he said. “To get all that together, we have a good project.”

“We can’t stress the partnerships with the landowners and water users enough,” Parsons added.

According to the NRCS, the life expectancy of any given project is 30-50 years, but could last much longer, or help the river change and grow in its own constructive way.

“We try to give the river stability, but it also has to develop a character of its own,” Streeter said. “We are building resilience into the system. We can have both (water use and habitat). The irrigation water flows in the Encampment sustain the valley in years like this, because the floodplain becomes a sponge and releases that water back into the river slowly in July and August.”

And above all, Wyoming’s rivers are just well-used, Barrineau added.

“Sometimes that doesn’t always work in the favor of fish and wildlife, so then we have to go back and nudge rivers a little bit,” she said.