When he was a kid, Mark Schmidt would fish for steelhead and salmon on the Molalla river. He’s stay with a friend in a little cabin on the banks.
“If we could so much as hear the raindrops on the shingles in the night, we were aware that we would not be fishing in the morning.”
The Molalla flows from the west slope of the Oregon Cascades. About half watershed is private forest land. Schmidt says in the 60s, the area was being heavily logged. When it rained the logging operations sent sediment pouring down the river.
“It kind of looked like orange wet cement.”
A lot has changed. Today, state Forest Practices Acts, and the Federal Clean Water Act, require timber land owners to follow what’s called best management practices when they log. To protect water quality.
So how do you protect a stream when you’re clear cutting all around it? There are obvious steps, like leaving a buffer of trees untouched to protect the stream bank and shade the water.
But it turns out, road engineering is another key step.
“Roads can frequently contribute up to 90 percent of the sediment going into streams,
That’s Dave Powers. He’s a Forest and Rangeland Manager for the EPA
“particularly if they’re not properly designed, located and operated.”
Powers says roads can dramatically change the hydrology of a forest. Their hard, flat surfaces collect and channel rainwater. But they can also do stranger things- intercepting underground flow and bringing that to the surface. And in a storm, all that fast moving water can carry fine sediment into streams.
“Roads are really a conduit. They deliver from an entire landscape. And in many cases they actually extend the stream network and make it a flashier system.”
The key to fixing problem, Powers says, is keeping roads and streams separated.Most roads collect storm water in ditches. If those ditches empty into streams, they muddy the water. The fix- drain the ditch onto the forest floor instead. It acts like a filter, or a sponge.
Jeff Mehlschau is an engineer with Weyerhauser. He works on their tree farm in the Molalla basin. In the same place where the river ran orange in the 1960s.
Mehlschau is rebuilding the North Folk Molalla road to prepare for a big timber harvest.
“Over the next 18 months, we’ll have 1000 to 12 hundred log trucks coming down this road. That gets our antenna up.”
Mehlschau points out a place where the road runs into a cascading stream.
“We do have a live stream behind us. And right up here is our cross drain.”
When a storm hits, this cross drain should direct muddy runoff underneath the road, away from the stream.
“and we get it off onto the floor and let it infiltrate before it gets into the creek.”
Mehlschau says his roads are well maintained. And none of his ditches are polluting streams with muddy runoff. Weyerhauser says it spends between 7 and 12 million dollars a year in the Northwest, bringing its old roads up to code.
But a recent compliance study in Washington state found that 1 in 10 logging roads is still draining runoff into a stream. And older data suggests that in Oregon, 1 in 4 logging roads may still be connected to the stream network.
Mark Riskedahl is an attorney with the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. He thinks the timber industry should be required to get pollution permits for the runoff from their roads. Those permits would place a limit on how much sediment a company could
“So scrap yards, gravel mines. Municipalities have to get these permits for discharges from road networks in cities large and small. ”
Riskedahl’s group filed a lawsuit over an EPA rule that exempts forest roads from needing pollution permits. And it won its case before a lower court.
“Why should, you know, Wall Street timber investment firms and huge timber companies get special treatment under the Clean Water Act. If they’re generating pollution, they should be held accountable just as everybody else is.”
But the Supreme Court has agreed to review that decision and could reverse it.
And pretty much everyone- congress, even the EPA- is opposed to the idea of permits for sediment.
The timber industry says the permits would just amount to more paperwork.
And that state regulations are already cleaning up the water.
On the Molalla, at least, there is some evidence that the state’s system of setting guidelines for road design and maintenance is working.
Mark Schmidt, who used to fish here as a kid, is now a native fish steward. He says the Molalla occasionally gets murky for a day or two, but mostly, the river is clear.
“We don’t have anywhere nears the turbidity in the river that we did in the 1960s. I mean, there’s just no comparison.”
And that, Schmidt says, is very good news for fish.
This story is part of EarthFix and Investigate West’s series on the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act.
Copyright 2012 EarthFix