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Tom Smart, Deseret News
An area restored in 2005 is now teeming with plants that help prevent riverbank erosion.

STRAWBERRY RESERVOIR — Along a section of the Strawberry River, the bare earthen bank tells the story of man's meddling gone wrong, of ripping away vegetation that once held together the soil.

As the water courses downstream, it eats away at the dirt and carries it along to the reservoir, one of the West's most famous spots for king-sized rainbow and cutthroat trout.

With the soil comes naturally occurring phosphorus, so much of it that the reservoir earned "imperiled" status. The river was identified as the primary tributary contributing to the higher-than-normal concentrations.

For about 100 years, the willows that populated the Strawberry Valley and grew along the banks of the river were considered nuisances that interfered with grazing. By the mid-1980s, the trees were wiped out, an action that unwittingly caused the present-day contamination of phosphorus in the 17-mile-long river.

In a new era with new understanding, the inadvertent problems caused so many years ago are being addressed with an ambitious river restoration project accelerated by a little more than a half-million dollars in federal stimulus funding. This latest restoration effort is restoring 5.7 miles of the river to a more natural state.

What was once predicted to take three years to complete will now be done within a year, said project biologist Justin Robinson — good news for Strawberry's fish and fishermen.

Too much phosphorus causes the growth of extensive algae blooms in the reservoir that compete with fish for oxygen. The result is that, over time, what was once prime habitat where the fish thrive becomes compromised.

Even the presence of too much sediment causes problems in the life cycle of the fish early on, smothering the eggs of spawning fish.

"The phosphorus limits the ability of the fish to grow and thrive," said project manager Alan Ward. Ward and Robinson work for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which has partnered with the state Division of Water Quality and the U.S. Forest Service to rectify the wrongs and rid the watershed system of the phosphorous contamination.

That hindrance is a key threat to the reservoir, which annually logs 1.5 million angler hours because of its large trout and salmon, as well as its close proximity to urban areas.

Restoration of the river started several years ago, and the impacts are readily visible. As the river winds along a boardwalk not far from the reservoir's visitor center, lush clumps of willows hug the banks, and thick, 2-foot-tall grasses are spread along its edge. Those trees and grasses are critical to the bank's natural integrity, holding the soils in place and preventing migration of the banks. The grass, or sedge, has a root system 18 times the size of its above-ground presence, reaching out and down with tendrils as extensive as 48 feet.

Large rocks and root wads have been deliberately placed in sections of the river to divert the water from edges, again as a way to stave off erosion.

Farther upstream, the contrast is stark.

The river is wider, more shallow, and its banks are muddy and bare.

"We average 4 to 14 inches of bank migration every year," Robinson said. "We lost 4 feet of bank in one year."

When Robinson looks at the mile-long section that has already been rehabilitated, he's confident this next stage will produce similar healing results.

"You can see this part of the river is healed and is now taking care of itself," he said. "That is the promise that says this is how it can be."