Saving Sunlight: Construction to correct channeling of Sunlight Creek in full swing

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When the notice came out looking for a few hardy souls to work a day in nasty weather, it wasn’t the most attractive invite for potential volunteers. But organizers promised a bonus: “There will be extra bear spray.”

The volunteer project was to cut and trim hundreds of willow starts to shore up the banks of Sunlight Creek. The starts, about as big around as a thumb and a few feet long, were to be transplanted along the newly constructed Sunlight Creek channel. The $750,000 construction project aims to right the stream and end excessive bank erosion.

Meeting at the Cody region Wyoming Game and Fish Department headquarters, project organizer and aquatic habitat biologist Laura Burckhardt was happy to see a half-dozen volunteers had decided to brave the wind and snow. Combined with four Game and Fish employees, it was enough to attack the willows.

Soon the caravan was on the road to the Beartooth Mountain Range, negotiating snow-covered roads to start the work day. Cutting willow starts may seem like an insignificant part of a project costing three-quarters of a million dollars, but every little bit helps, Burckhardt said.

One of the volunteers, Lorna Anderson of Cody, decided it was important to help out to make up for human mistakes.

“When I found out the creek was out of control due to human factors, I wanted to do my part. I really like helping out,” said Anderson, a 66-year-old retiree.

By the time massive construction vehicles rolled on Sunlight Creek to correct the problem, the equivalent of 1,855 dumptruck loads of eroded sediment had been dumped into the stream last year alone. Some 25 acres of upland and riparian habitat had been lost to erosion since the Game and Fish acquired the property in the 1960s. Game and Fish infrastructure was being threatened and habitat for moose and elk was being lost. Fishing in the stream was also being severely degraded, Burckhardt said. Sediment being washed downstream is considered a pollutant, choking the river and impacting local properties.

“Stable stream channel bank erosion should be measured in inches, not feet. And definitely never hundreds of feet,” Burckhardt said. “It’s been a chronic problem since the ’70s.”

Game and Fish was forced to reroute a road allowing public access to nearby Forest Service property several times and shore up a bridge that was in danger of being washed away.

“Last year we had to close the Game and Fish Unit for several weeks because the bank was moving so quickly that it ate the road once, so we moved it, and then it ate that road,” Burckhardt said. “It just wasn’t safe.”

Power poles were also moved at least three times. The erosion was happening so fast it jeopardized the entire property. Projections of the drainage’s eventual direction showed it cutting right through a group of historic cabins at the facility. Efforts made in the 1950s to straighten the creek on private land downstream was done without much thought to the effects upstream, partially causing the creek to begin cutting its way through its banks.

“Streams will eventually fix themselves, but you have to figure out what you’re going to lose in that amount of time. It could be 50 years before they can fix themselves,” Burckhardt said. “It was a balance between what would happen if we left it alone and what could happen if we assisted. There was too much that was going to be lost in Sunlight.”

Shamrock Environmental Corporation, of Greensboro, North Carolina, was the winning bid for the project. The company specializes in the construction of natural channel design projects. Work on the 1-mile section of stream includes a full-channel realignment, giving the creek access to a flood plain to absorb energy and deposit sediment in high water events.

“I’ll never get another project quite like Sunlight,” said Liz DiNatale, an environmental engineer and project manager for the company. “It’s just the most beautiful place I’ve ever had the pleasure working 12 hours a day.”

Shamrock Environmental is relatively new to Wyoming. The Sunlight project is the company’s third project in the state. While the company does most of its work on the East Coast, DiNatale hopes to score more work in the state, making it possible to have permanent crews in the area.

“I want to help save the planet, one stream at a time,” DiNatale said.

All heavy equipment for the project is locally leased. Most of the cost of the project, $550,000, comes from grants from state and federal entities as well as local organizations like Trout Unlimited.

The banks will be shored up with interlocking toe-wood — logs with roots intact — to slow the speed of the creek and creating undercut banks for excellent fish habitat. There is 150 percent more brook trout upstream of the eroded section, Burckhardt said. The make-up of the creek bed is fine sand and gravel. Once that reaches the Clarks Fork River, sediment settles in spawning areas, harming natural trout recruitment. The hope is the contruction project will make for better fish habitat through the entire system.

“Once it’s healed and the vegetation grows back, you wouldn’t know we had done something there,” Burckhardt said.

One benefit from the construction project is dredging has reached what’s thought to be the bottom of an ancient glacial lake that once covered the valley. Studying the exposed layers and ancient wood preserved in the clay base is an exciting opportunity for geologists, who’ve come from around the world to study the area, Burckhardt said.

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