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Creek Fork Awaits Rebirth

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Michael Cairns discusses rehabilitation plans for the south fork of Ash Creek in Independence.

INDEPENDENCE -- The view of Ash Creek's south fork as it crosses under the F Street Bridge is hardly inspiring.

The old Mountain Fir Lumber Co. dam that once controlled the stream flow sits in ruins today, large sections of its concrete frame collapsed inward. Soda bottles poke through the algae surrounding the debris.

To the immediate south is a mosaic of green and brown -- the muck and mire of a dried-out pond bed, overgrown with patches of invasive beggars tick.

Yet despite its appearance, the four-acre stretch of Ash Creek actually has the potential to thrive, said Michael Cairns of the Luckiamute Watershed Council.

There's an abundance of cottonwood, alder and other native plant species surrounding and stabilizing the stream banks.

The creek, like other tributaries of the Luckiamute River, is used as winter refuge for rearing salmon and steelhead, Cairns said.

It's this potential that has the LWC, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District and other agencies coordinating a wetland restoration of the site.

The roughly $50,000 project will be funded through grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation and other organizations.

"Because the dam has been there for about 40 years, fish haven't been able to go up the south fork of the creek," Cairns said.

"This will open up a couple more miles of stream habitat for the species and help restore the area to what it looked like before."

Joe Sheahan, an ODFW stream restoration program coordinator, said work would begin next fall when the water levels are at their lowest.

The project has two basic components, the first being cleanup and removal of what's left of the dam beneath the F Street Bridge.

It was constructed several decades ago by Mountain Fir to raise the water levels and create holding ponds for treated lumber.

The structure has deteriorated over time and collapsed last winter. The ponds dried out as a result.

The city of Independence owns the land that contains this section of Ash Creek, but had no plans to clean out the dam when the LWC approached town leaders this spring about a restoration of the area, Cairns said.

The LWC and its partners will remove the dam and place 40 to 50 boulders in its place, to stabilize the banks and create pockets of calm water that fish can use as refuge.

The beggars tick -- which has seed pods that can lodge in a fish's gills --- will then be cleaned out of the ponds and native native trees and shrubs planted around the perimeter to provide stream cover and enhance the creek, Cairns said.

Though much of Ash Creek winds through urban areas, it serves as shelter for juvenile trout and salmon before they are washed into the strong winter currents of the Willamette River, Sheahan said.

Rehabbing the area would allow fish to swim another five or six miles upstream. The plantings would cool the temperature of the stream in the summer.

"During the summer, the temperature of what's left in the pond has been recorded at about 80 degrees, way too hot for any fish," Cairns said.

One concern voiced during a city council meeting regarding the project is the issue of contaminants in the creek bed.

An assessment by the Department of Environmental Quality during the 1990s showed chemicals used by Mountain Fir to treat lumber had affected the pond water and seeped into the soil.

Cairns said the fear was that the restoration work would somehow mobilize the sediment, contaminate fish and create a risk of exposure for those who wade through the creek.

A DEQ evaluation on the Mountain Fir site states the danger associated from the contaminants to be "below levels of concern."

Cairns said he believes a restored wetland habitat would benefit the community. Once the plantings have matured, the area could be used as an outdoor classroom for Central High School and Western Oregon University students.

Students from both schools would handle monitoring of fish and invertebrate species in the years following the restoration work.

Cairns said he has also approached city officials about the possibility of somehow incorporating a rehabbed south fork into plans for the proposed Ash Creek Trail.

"You have a stream habitat in the middle of the Independence area ... I imagine that there's a lot of kids living in town that don't know what a real natural area looks like -- they could walk a few blocks from their homes and see some trout and salmon.

"Our hope* is that this site gets used by hikers, birdwatchers and other people in the community."

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