Seven Great Comebacks | Outdoor Life

Seven Great Comebacks

The human stories behind seven notable river revivals.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Resurrecting rivers can be complex, time-consuming, as dirty as partisan politics or as straightforward as loading limestone gravel in a drum. Conditions may demand that all parties pitch in or that everybody leave the stream alone to heal; they may require negotiated cooperation, collective bargaining and compromise a small group of like-minded crusaders just one determined person or all of the above.

The rivers included here are not now pristine. But, to varying degrees, they are fishable again. They have come back from dire straits or, at the very least, are well on their way. Some were once dead, others only dying. Some were chosen for symbolic value, as representative of many troubled waters; others are unique. Some are included because so many causes contributed to their demise or so few, because the story of their redemption is so complicated or so simple.

These river revivals do not describe in detail what would take books to do well, nor do they credit all those to whom credit is due. They merely offer glimpses of what has been done on a few polluted waterways and what is now underway. They suggest large and small triumphs of nature and of man.

** 1. Upper Sacramento, California **
Rivers die slowly. You don't have a live one today and a sterile channel tomorrow. Or you do.

On July 13, 1991, rainbows on the Upper Sacramento River began working their summer timetable: hunting riffles early morning, foraging nymphs midday, slashing caddis emergers late afternoon, rising to mayflies at dusk. The Sac was rich in bugs, a freestone brawler fed by snowmelt from the slopes of Mt. Shasta, a blue-ribbon fishery averaging 6,700 to 8,800 trout per mile for more than 38 miles. But on that July day, 19,000 gallons of metam sodium, a soil fumigant, spilled out of a Southern Pacific railroad tanker from an accident on the bridge at Canterra Loop.

On July 14, 1991, there were no trout left in the river below the bridge. None.

Those fish-per-mile numbers came from carcass counts. Some people say they're low, that a million trout died that day. The tanker's chemical cargo, however, was not even deemed toxic. That's because it's not until it combines with water.

With the river lifeless, man's battles began. One of the most important skirmishes pitted rivertown businessmen demanding the empty channel be filled with hatchery rainbows against "wild" trout advocates who wanted the river left alone to heal and replenish itself, and then opened only to special regulations.

In a compromise, the California Department of Fish and Game closed the river to fishing, captured wild rainbows from the headwaters above the kill, spawned them and nurtured the smolts. When lower life forms reestablished themselves, the Department released the young fish. Meanwhile, they planted ponds around towns with outsized "trophy fish."

The Upper Sac reopened in 1994. Six miles received additional hatchery plants and bait fishing and catch- and-kill was allowed in this section. The rest was designated catch-and- release; in these areas the trout population was about 1,200 per mile. It had just about doubled by 1996, but since then the region has been pounded by extreme winter floods.

"We've done everything humanly possible to encourage the comeback," says Chip O'Brien, a river guide and teacher. "But there have been very few cases in which a river has been completely destroyed, so we're not sure if what we're witnessing is natural or not. It's a learning experience for all of us. Eventually, the trout will ce back." Nothing can stop them, you might say, except a train wreck.

** 2. Cranberry, West Virginia **
Rain washed pollution from the sky onto the land and into Cranberry River. Acids, originating mainly from coal-burning plants in Ohio and the Tennessee Valley, mixed into the water, which was already measuring low 6s on the pH scale (on which 7 is neutral, and 6 to 8.4 the acceptable range for trout). Heavy spring runoffs exacerbated the problem by sending heavily acidic "pulses" downstream, as did runoffs from thunderstorms.

By the 1970s, the Cranberry's pH sometimes fell into the 5s, a level that would kill hatchery trout. When its tributaries began to score mid-4s, the brookies ceased spawning and the mayflies died out. It's a story common throughout the Northeast, but this one has a different ending.

Peter Zurbach, of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, had experimented with limestone in the 1950s, placing what is almost pure calcium carbonate in lakes, hoping it would act as a systemic antacid. But the solid stones he used soon became nonreactive, and the trials ended.

As the Cranberry declined, Zurbuch tried again, this time using a technique he pioneered on Otter Creek in Randolph County. His "rotating limestone drum" is a perforated 55-gallon steel barrel equipped with flanges, partially filled with limestone gravel, and set below a sluice-rather like some of the old mill wheels. Falling water turns the barrel, grinding the rock fragments against each other; and water also enters the barrel, dissolving freshly chipped stone surfaces.

It worked-so well that in 1989 DNR set up a station on one of Cranberry's tributaries, Dogway; then another, in 1993, on the North Fork with cooperation from West Virginia University College of Engineering. They developed the drums to replenish themselves in order to reduce costs. Everyone profited enormously from a revitalized river.

Today, the two stations keep the Cranberry's pH close enough to neutral that brookies, browns and even acid-intolerant rainbows reproduce in the system. Dogway is a superb self-sustaining fishery. And the mayflies are back.

There's more to the story: In the early 1990s, "fines"-limestone sand formed from the ground gravel-began showing downstream from the tumbling drums. Research revealed that water passing across this grit absorbed a significant amount of calcium carbonate. So in 1994, DNR began laying limestone sand in the headwaters of various West Virginia tributaries. Zurbuch says that in every stream-around 75 so far-they've seen improvement in trout populations and in fish returning to areas they had abandoned. Now they're testing limestone's effect on acid inflows from mines.

As for the Cranberry River, it is once again a premier trout stream. Zurbuch demurs when his role in the recovery is mentioned. "I guess I'll never hear anybody complain about the Cranberry anymore," he says, his voice a little gravelly.

** 3. Upper Saint Johns, Florida **
Three hundred years after the French settled Florida's coast, steam shovels led farmers into the interior. Eventually they reached the marshy headwaters of the Upper Saint Johns, the state's longest river, which in a 310-mile stroll to the Atlantic falls a mere 30 feet. Fertile cropland lay beneath the wide sheets of shallow water. By the middle of the 1900s, 62 percent of the floodplain was dammed, diked and planted, narrowed in some places from 30 miles to one.

Floods resulted, disastrous ones after hurricanes in the 1920s and '40s. Congress concluded that the symptom was the disease, and in 1954 authorized the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, which in 1966 began digging Canal 54, running east from the upper drainage all to way to the Indian River Lagoon. That maneuver produced a second calamity: Canal 54 now dumped fresh water-up to 45,000 gallons per second-into North America's most biologically diverse estuary, radically altering the lagoon's salinity and placing in peril a host of plants, animals and the region's important clam fisheries.

What Congress wrought it could rescind: Scrutiny of the Upper Saint Johns increased in 1969, after passage of the Federal Environmental Protection Act. An Environmental Impact Statement was ordered on Canal 54, and in 1972 the federal government halted additional construction pending the EIS results. Two years later, Florida withdrew its support.

With the transfer of local sponsorship to the Saint Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), years of extensive study began to determine how best to repair the damage already done. What emerged would soon be the largest project of its kind in the world.

The basic design favored revitalizing the historic river basin by mimicking the original flow patterns of the Saint Johns wherever possible. That necessitated first reacquiring enormous stretches of the original marshes: SJRWMD paid almost $100 million for 99,000 acres.

The Army Corps of Engineers then set out to construct a system which would, with a minimum of manipulation, water the floodplain, recreating marshes to buffer the effects of both dry periods and high water-to act as "the heart and kidneys of the river."

At the same time, farm runoff was diverted from the river proper into reservoirs where it could be recycled. These reservoirs now provide some of the nation's best bass angling, in impoundments like Blue Cypress Lake and the Stick Marsh.

"It's not a panacea," says one of the narrators of a video about the project put together by the SJRWMD and the Corps of Engineers. Nor will it remedy all the damage done. "But it does give nature a second chance."

** 4. Lower Cuyahoga, Ohio **
Its name means "crooked" in the language of a local tribe, and after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, it became an international symbol for the foulest water pollution, the unregulated dumping of dangerous wastes and the utter corruption of a natural resource. Time magazine published dramatic pictures of what was essentially a burning oil slick extinguished in 20 minutes. The river "oozes rather than flows," claimed the hyperbolic text. In its ded that the symptom was the disease, and in 1954 authorized the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, which in 1966 began digging Canal 54, running east from the upper drainage all to way to the Indian River Lagoon. That maneuver produced a second calamity: Canal 54 now dumped fresh water-up to 45,000 gallons per second-into North America's most biologically diverse estuary, radically altering the lagoon's salinity and placing in peril a host of plants, animals and the region's important clam fisheries.

What Congress wrought it could rescind: Scrutiny of the Upper Saint Johns increased in 1969, after passage of the Federal Environmental Protection Act. An Environmental Impact Statement was ordered on Canal 54, and in 1972 the federal government halted additional construction pending the EIS results. Two years later, Florida withdrew its support.

With the transfer of local sponsorship to the Saint Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), years of extensive study began to determine how best to repair the damage already done. What emerged would soon be the largest project of its kind in the world.

The basic design favored revitalizing the historic river basin by mimicking the original flow patterns of the Saint Johns wherever possible. That necessitated first reacquiring enormous stretches of the original marshes: SJRWMD paid almost $100 million for 99,000 acres.

The Army Corps of Engineers then set out to construct a system which would, with a minimum of manipulation, water the floodplain, recreating marshes to buffer the effects of both dry periods and high water-to act as "the heart and kidneys of the river."

At the same time, farm runoff was diverted from the river proper into reservoirs where it could be recycled. These reservoirs now provide some of the nation's best bass angling, in impoundments like Blue Cypress Lake and the Stick Marsh.

"It's not a panacea," says one of the narrators of a video about the project put together by the SJRWMD and the Corps of Engineers. Nor will it remedy all the damage done. "But it does give nature a second chance."

** 4. Lower Cuyahoga, Ohio **
Its name means "crooked" in the language of a local tribe, and after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, it became an international symbol for the foulest water pollution, the unregulated dumping of dangerous wastes and the utter corruption of a natural resource. Time magazine published dramatic pictures of what was essentially a burning oil slick extinguished in 20 minutes. The river "oozes rather than flows," claimed the hyperbolic text. In its

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