Reconnecting the Willamette River
Innovative restoration efforts reclaim the floodplain and wetlands at the Willamette River Confluence Preserve
Where the Middle Fork of the Willamette River meets the Coast Fork, we've removed gravel pits and barriers to reconnect the river to its historic floodplain. Restoration of this area protects water quality, provides salmon and other species with critical habitat and mitigates the risk of flooding downstream.
It’s 7am on a rainy winter day in the Willamette Valley and Rosario Franco is already on the banks of the river. An early start is essential if he and his crew are going to get 12,000 plants in the ground. He rolls up his sleeves and makes his way through the tall grass to the site where his new trees will take root. His hard work at the Willamette Confluence Preserve, he knows, will provide healthy habitat for wildlife, Chinook salmon, and native plants in the Willamette River while improving water quality and lessening the chances of flooding downstream. But before that can happen, he has to figure out what to do about these beavers.
“Every restoration project has challenges, but this one has more beaver activity than we’d anticipated,” he says. “They’re eating all my willow trees.”
Rosario has his usual crew of twelve as well as three students from Laja, Mexico who Rosario is hosting as part of an educational exchange program for forestry students. As he inspects a stand of willows that he fenced off for beaver-proofing, Rosario imparts the valuable lessons he has learned by reconnecting the river here to its surrounding floodplain, which was cut off for years due to extensive gravel mining. Now that the river is free to flow back and forth between side channels and natural wetland areas, he’s helping The Nature Conservancy restore native plant populations such as willows that will naturally filter and improve water quality, prevent erosion, and provide shade.
“Look, the beavers got everything else but they’re leaving these willows alone,” he says. “Eventually, we can remove the fencing and reuse it on a new stand of trees with the hopes of having well-established native willows on site.”
Even though Rosario has been doing this work for twenty years, his enthusiasm for it has never waned. His crew, his exchange students and members of the greater conservation community all benefit from his passion for restoration and hands-on knowledge of the landscape.
"I like to imagine how this place will look in five or ten years," he says. "That thought always pushes me to do my best.”