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Railroad replaced to allow fish to spawn in old habitat

MERRITT, Wash. – A half-dozen spring chinook nosed against a gentle current in the shallow, crystal waters of Upper Nason Creek early this month just downstream of history in the making.

Their offspring will, for the first time in more than a century, have access to a wetland and five mountain streams that got cut off when the Great Northern Railroad built its track across Stevens Pass in 1893.

The line severed an oxbow from the mainstem creek at a point that is today just across U.S. Highway 2 from the Nason Creek Campground rest area, 42 miles northwest of Leavenworth.

Culverts placed under the rail bed let some water through, but have been an obstacle to the spring chinook and steelhead that once spawned in the creek’s upper tributaries. Both species are now threatened.

During spring runoff, the culverts concentrated and intensified the water flow, creating too strong a current for young fish. As the summer warmed and flow ebbed, the culverts were left high and dry, blocking passage entirely.

That will end next month with the completion of the Lower White Pine Project, a restoration effort considered to have the highest potential for benefiting chinook and steelhead in the Wenatchee River subbasin.

BNSF Railway and Chelan County are using nearly $4 million in federal funding to restore flow to the old oxbow and its surrounding 152 acres of wetland. This will make 73 additional acres of streams and wetlands accessible to fish at periods of high flow and nearly 7 acres at low flow.

“This is a historical project. A precedent-setting project, and one of the only salmon-recovery projects that involves the railroad,” said Mike Kaputa, natural resources director for Chelan County.

Using nearly $1 million in funding from the Bonneville Power Administration, the railroad has replaced the section of track that once spanned the culverts with a bridge it will own and maintain.

Crews worked for a month driving 16 steel pilings, each 155 to 200 feet long, down through the track bed to support the 90-foot concrete spans of the new bridge.

The work had to be carefully timed to not interrupt train service.

An average of 20 trains carrying freight and people roll over those tracks daily, including Amtrak on its daily run from Seattle to Chicago.

County biologists hope projects such as this one on Nason Creek will boost available habitat to entice young fish to overwinter in their home tributaries, so they’re stronger and have a better chance of survival when they migrate to the ocean.