The Wyoming Fish and Wildlife Department helped supervise the project of Flat Creek, which involved a long list of funding groups and volunteer collaborators. As is often the case, sediment was fingered as the ultimate problem in the channel. A website explained the desire to remove excess sediment from the system and restore natural processes. The creek itself looked like a nice meandering piece of water that slowly worked its way through a wide meadow of tall grasses. Like most meandering rivers, this was a system that would naturally erode across this wide floodplain carving new channels and discarding lopped off arms of water to slowly silt up during floods. Meandering rivers are meant to move.
One statement stopped me in my tracks and served as the ultimate embodiment of what we had become as managers of rivers. According to the project designers, "the project will involve removing old structures and replacing them with new structures.” I wondered how many generation of projects would be needed before the creek was no longer recognizable as a real river. Somehow the process of restoring this creek had become a periodic maintenance project where human will ignore natural channel change and perpetually decide what is best for the waterway. In this case, the project designers thought Flat Creek should be a meandering river that did not meander.
From 1978 until 1987 large numbers of structures were placed along the Flat Creek system, including 167 lunkers, which they called skyhook bank cover panels. Other structures that needed replacement included a collection of triangular deflectors installed in 1984 that look like they had been built to the design specifications laid out by Clarence Tarzwell in 1938. They looked like nothing you would ever expect to find in a meadow brook. Photographs of the decades old construction efforts showed backhoes and bulldozers scraping away vegetation from the banks and dumping loads of sediment on top of the lunkers. Clouds of sediment emanating from these construction projects and billowing down the channel are obvious. In places it looks like the bulldozers were leaking chocolate milk into the creek. Remembering that managers said sediment was the real problem, these photographs seemed like documentation of our own stupidity.
In 1983, managers decided to deal with the excess sediment in the channel bed by utilizing riffle scrubbers where jets of high pressure water were used to flush sediments out from between larger rocks. The website did not mention if they went back and reflushed the sediments to remove the siltation their bulldozer had just reintroduced to the river. Heavy equipment was even used at one point to dredge the creek “to speed up natural processes.” I kept looking for natural processes in the photographs, but all I saw were shots of yellow construction vehicles, lumber shelving and a scattering of other engineered solutions. Altogether the groups put in more than ½ mile of lunkers and tree revetments, 100 feet of riprap and 20 deflectors to keep the creek pinned in place. Meanwhile, the pictures showed a grassy meadow without a tree anywhere near the creek. I wondered how natural it was to have a lumbered up river in a place with no trees along its banks. Erosion of the banks was to be eliminated unless we directly caused it with our machines.
Project proponents indicated that “trout clearly benefited from the improved habitat.” They presented evidence that showed trout biomass levels in 1992 were five times levels in 1984. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that the project was actually started in 1978 and continued until 1987. Their own data show that biomass levels in 1987 dropped slightly from 1984, and then increased rapidly in 1990. It is always hard to pinpoint a cause and effect relation in a complex system like a Wyoming Creek, but it certainly seems possible to me that the biomass data show how detrimental in-stream construction projects are on the trout. It is hard to imagine trout prospering in a system where banks are ripped apart and then reconstructed by backhoes, bulldozers push sediment on the banks around and scores of humans walk up and down the bed of the channel to install shelving units. The trout populations did not seem to recover until after the bulldozers were removed. Unfortunately for the creek and the trout it contains, the bulldozers are returning to help impose the latest human blueprint of our interpretation of a natural channel. I guess our last effort did not work after all.