We're not really building the river. We're helping the river build itself. —Strawberry Project Biologist and Project Manager Justin Robinson

STRAWBERRY, Wasatch County — Despite a hot summer day, the cool, dark water here moves easily beneath a canopy of willows. During the months of June and September, the Strawberry River hosts spawning cutthroat trout and kokanee salmon.

But eight years ago, this lush river bend resembled more of a construction site, with machinery pushing huge boulders into place and crews working the river banks. Today the area serves as inspiration for similar work being done a few miles upstream as biodegradable fabric is put in place on riverbanks as one step in creating a better fish spawning environment.

"We're not really building the river," Strawberry Project Biologist and Project Manager Justin Robinson said. "We're helping the river build itself."

Barren dirt paths lead cars and equipment around the construction site as crews of up to 20 people work to restore water quality, increase vegetation and thereby help the fish.

The 4.7-mile construction site was nearing 55 percent completion this week and is in its fourth phase of river reconstruction, Robinson said. Phase four has a budget of $560,000, which Robinson said comes from angler dollars and state and federal water quality dollars.

The project began in 2005, Robinson said, when Strawberry Reservoir was put on the Environmental Protection Agency 303D impaired water list because the phosphorus level was too high.

“The number one source that they identified for potential reduction was Strawberry River,” he said.

When stream banks are stable they hold the soils, keeping the natural sedimentary phosphorus from getting into the river and flowing into the reservoir. Robinson said phosphorus in the reservoir causes an increase in algae that grazers don’t normally eat. This means it falls to the bottom and decomposes, which uses up oxygen, potentially threatening fish.

Averaging about 1.2 million angler hours a year, the reservoir is the most popular cold water fishery in the state, Robinson said. To keep up those numbers, the reservoir needs to be stocked each year.

“Stocking the fish is expensive,” Robinson said. “We have the opportunity for our fish to come up into our tributaries and spawn. That’s free and it produces a lot of fish to the reservoir.”

He said an average of 33 to 36 percent of all cutthroat in the reservoir are spawned naturally in the river.

Robinson said those fish alone would cost about $125,000 to $140,000 to supply.

“What we want to create is ideal conditions in the streams so that we can increase that number,” Robinson said. “That just saves the public, and the anglers specifically, a lot of money.”

To do this, the boulders were specifically placed to create rock veins and move energy from the outside edge of a bend back to the middle of the channel. That will help narrow and deepen the water, making it more suitable for fish.

“As we stabilize the outside bend, the idea is to have the inside bend fill in,” Robinson said.

The crews also put down form board that was then covered in coconut coir fabric and filled with soil to protect the banks. Willow branches are then placed on the fabric to increase vegetation.

Root masses were also installed where direct force would normally hit the bank soils. Robinson said the roots act as a catcher's mitt to help decrease erosion.

Robinson said when the current phase of the project is complete at the end of 2015, 12.2 river miles will have been restored. So far, crews have worked on the river incrementally for the past 11 years and have already seen a positive impact.

“Within a year or two we’re getting the revegetation but instantly we have that stream bank stabilization,” Robinson said.

Joh Schultz, member of the board of directors for High Country Fly Fisher, said fishermen are excited about the changes.

"It means making a viable fishing stream out of a stream that for years was useless as a fishery," he said.

The club along with various Boy Scout and school groups have planted about 1,500 willows a year for the past four years, Schultz said, and it's "definitely making a difference." The willows provide shade which keeps the water cool.

Currently, Robinson said there are about 260,000 to 280,000 cutthroat trout in the reservoir. He said there are more subadults and entire populations of rainbow trout and kokanee salmon, but crews don’t have the ability to estimate those populations.

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: EmileeEagar