Story and photos by Kate Frey

In 1955, Clark and Lyla Lampson’s current blueberry farm in the valley along the Walla Walla River in Milton-Freewater was first developed for agriculture.

Cleared of large, shady stands of cottonwoods, alders, willows and other riparian vegetation, the land was replanted in apple and plum trees too close to the riverbank.

In 1992 when they bought the property, the Lampsons tried farming and marketing the apples, but found they were not a money-making venture. So in 1994 the trees were removed, and fields of blueberries were planted instead.

The river was confined to a straight, narrow channel through the property by a levee and the banks were bare, lacking trees to cast cooling shade on the water or any pools of refuge for fish habitat.

In 2005 and 2011 the Lampson’s engaged in a 36-acre riparian enhancement project along 2,297 feet of the Walla Walla River with federal agencies, the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council and the Fish Habitat Program of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The goals of the enhancement project were numerous. Creating better river conditions for endangered spring chinook and steelhead to spawn, and for bull trout younglings to grow was a primary goal.

Removing the confining levee on the property that channelized and confined the river’s flow to a narrow straight line and prevented it from meandering would broaden the area it could spread out in during high water events, reconnecting it to its former floodplain. In turn, that would slow the velocity and cause silt to drop out, essentially helping to clean the water from sediments.

Space to spread out would give the water more area to percolate into the soil to help mitigate downstream flooding and would help replenish groundwater levels. Meanders would create pools and resting places for young fish to feed in and grow and rest during migration.

The Tribe’s plan also diverted 10% of the river flow of the river into a side channel they created to provide favorable habitat for young fish. Thirty different species of native trees and shrubs were planted in a very wide swath along river banks —cottonwoods, alders and a number of species of willow to shade the river to help cool the water and create favorable conditions for the fish and to help hold the banks during high water events.

Initially, large woody elements like trees trunks and roots were anchored with pieces of concrete along the bare banks to slow the water and develop pools for fish. Riparian plants like coyote willow, elderberry, snow currant, yellow currant, snowberry and basin wild rye were included in the riverside planting to provide habitat for many birds and wildlife.

A pivotal point in the project was the removal of a downstream dam in 2009 built in the late 1890’s at nearby Marie Dorian Park that formerly fed a powerhouse to generate electricity. The dam was fed by a flume that was housed in a wooden pipe. It had formed a physical barrier that prevented fish from migrating upstream.

Along with the river restoration, the Lampson’s gave back 19-acre feet of water rights to help restore the river flow and kept 17-acre feet to use for their farming operations.

When they first bought the property, the river ran dry each summer and they never saw any salmon. Now over half of the Walla Walla River’s water right users are leaving a portion of their water rights instream for the recovery of local fish populations and salmon regularly frequent the ever-present river.

With the recent flood in early 2020, the swiftly flowing water decimated some of the large cottonwood and alder trees immediately adjacent to the river and scoured some areas to cobble. But where the water could slow down in the dense growth of shrubs and trees, it dropped many inches of silt that will fertilize the land.

Already, hundreds of young cottonwoods are germinating in it. The river has now settled into meanders now over a much wider area than before and pockets and pools of water dot the land.

Beavers that had settled in the area may have been washed away, and the Lampson’s are watching to see if they come back.

Now the Lampson’s farm has rows and rows of delectable blueberries, with huge cottonwood trees and lush belts of alder and native shrubs that host myriad bird life in the cool, leafy vegetation. Leaves sing in the breeze alongside the burbling river.

It looks like a scene that has been present forever.