Forgotten Martha Creek Dam removed

Structure on tributary of Wind River was abandoned in 1950s, took only days to demolish

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Before the U.S. Forest Service began planning the removal of Martha Creek Dam, officials first had to clear up one key detail about the structure:

Its location.

"We knew roughly the section it was in," said forest service engineer John Dryden. "So I just made sure I started downstream."

Dryden made the initial trek up Martha Creek in 2009, trudging on foot through an area not accessible by vehicle. The creek is a tributary of Trout Creek in the Wind River watershed, on the south end of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Only an old access route -- long since overgrown, but later used by forest crews packing in gear during the removal -- reached the 88-year-old dam.

Martha Creek Dam is gone now, broken up by drilling and blasting last week. The bulk of the work lasted only a few days, Dryden said -- workers detonated the first explosives on Aug. 20, and finished with three blasts on Aug. 22. Officials have spent recent days conducting surveys of the area to watch how the creek behaves under the new conditions.

Originally built in 1924 to supply water for a nearby nursery, the Martha Creek Dam measured 40 feet wide and 7 feet high. The structure was later used for domestic purposes, according to the forest service, but was eventually replaced by newer water systems. It was abandoned in the 1950s.

"Many people didn't even know it was there," said Bengt Coffin, a hydrologist in the Gifford Pinchot forest's Mount Adams district.

Forest officials decided to remove the Martha Creek Dam as part of a larger series of restoration projects in the Wind River watershed -- a well-populated and crucial fish habitat, Coffin said. Workers have replaced old culverts, upgraded bridges and made other changes to improve fish passage during the past decade. In 2009, crews removed the larger Hemlock Dam on nearby Trout Creek.

The Martha Creek Dam wasn't built with specific fish passage features, but was low enough that some adult steelhead could still clear it, Coffin said. Removing the structure entirely frees up the stream — and the waterways it connects to — for all resident fish to move through, he said.

"Really we're just kind of going through our list on Trout Creek and trying to take care of all of our fish passage issues and habitat work," Coffin said.

The Martha Creek project never ranked high on that priority list. It was delayed by the permitting process in 2011. Then plans changed on the fly earlier this year, when a central Washington wildfire required the use of a helicopter that workers had hoped to use to haul equipment to the Martha Creek site. Instead, a handful of people hoofed it with rock drills, explosives, pumps and other equipment on their backs, Dryden said.

"It was quite a hike out there," Dryden said. Coffin estimated the walk at about 30 to 40 minutes from the nearest road.

Workers didn't haul out concrete from the dam itself once the demolition was complete. The forest service opted to simply leave it scattered across the area as rubble, much of it spread by the explosions that broke it up.

After some consideration, planners decided the material didn't pose any effect on the environment, Coffin said. Within a few years, it will likely be grown over and covered by forest debris, he said.

"It just didn't seem like it merited the cost of trying to remove it all," Coffin said.

A simple bank of rock and dirt marks the spot where the Martha Creek Dam once stood. The cost of removal came to about $60,000, done entirely with forest service staff.

Martha Creek runs very low this time of year, and doesn't even have continuous flow in places, Coffin said. Workers relocated fish from the project area before blasting and drilling began, and put nets on either side of the creek to keep them out.

Forest officials will now use surveys to watch the progress of the waterway. They'll make a return trip next spring to check in after high winter flows, Dryden said. By then, the area may look much different.

"It's always interesting to see a stream return to its natural state," Dryden said. "It just gets better every year as it returns to the way nature intended it."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.