Another close look at Ashland Creek by fish and wildlife biologists last month revealed more gratifying evidence that wild salmon and steelhead inhabit the stream during seasonal runs and throughout the year.
Hundreds of young steelhead, a few coho salmon, Pacific giant salamanders and sculpin were counted while a 300-foot section of the creek was drained for an ongoing restoration project extending below Water Street Bridge.
"The key, to me," said Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist, is, "native fish are using Ashland Creek despite numerous challenges."
VanDyke is excited about restoration projects along the creek such as the one Ashland-based Northwest Biological Consulting is currently carrying out with funding from the City of Ashland.
Crews finished reconstructing portions of the creek channel, and removing a century-old irrigation dam once visible downstream from the bridge on Sept. 7, said Scott English, principal restoration biologist for the contractor.
After removing several tons of sediment that backed up in the stream channel above the dam, crews built a half-dozen horseshoe-shaped barriers made of river rock and rootwads in the stream to improve its capacity and fish habitat in the area, he said.
A fish recovery effort carried out with the help of ODFW on Aug. 9, when crews sucked the stream section dry counted 246 trout fry, 180 steelhead between 3 and 11 inches long, 8 coho salmon, 3 Pacific giant salamanders, and 167 sculpin.
Sculpin are a native bottom feeding fish, VanDyke said.
The trout fry were likely produced by last winter's steelhead run, he said. The 180 steelhead, the largest of which was 11 inches, are most likely 1- to 3-year-olds preparing themselves for their journeys to sea, but some could be resident rainbow trout.
Also, some of the trout fry, he said, could be cutthroat trout.
Ashland Creek, running off the highest point in the Bear Creek Watershed, has historically been Bear Creek's primary source for cold clean, water, VanDyke said, not far in front of Wagner, Neil, and Walker creeks, two of which pass near or through Ashland before running into Bear Creek. Bear Creek is a tributary of the Rouge River.
Several diversion sites, including the Million Ditch diversion pipe, which crews repositioned and outfitted with a fish screen as a part of the current project, siphon water off the creek. It also captures surface runoff from city storm drains. It has degraded riparian zones, frequently becomes contaminated with E. coli bacteria in the summer and is used to flush effluent from the city's water-treatment plant. It's also the source of the city's drinking water and some hydroelectric power.
Some of those diversion areas include concrete partial barriers that limit the ability of fish to get upstream during low water flows, VanDyke said.
Recent water-quality tests show that a section of Ashland Creek within Lithia Park is contaminated with E. coli bacteria, the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department reported, and the Jackson County Health Department has determined that the current level of bacteria exceeds E. coli standards for healthy recreational use. Bacteria levels often become elevated in the summer because of higher use of the creek, less water in the creek, and warmer water temperatures, VanDyke said.
"It's a good indicator of decreased water quality in general for the health of the stream," he said.
Park patrons are asked to avoid swimming, bathing and wading in Ashland Creek, and any incidental contact with creek water should be followed by thorough washing with soap and clean water. A fish-trapping effort from December 2011 to March 2012 yielded 18 juvenile steelhead, 8 juvenile coho, 2 cutthroat and that one adult steelhead, with 85 percent of the stream's fish likely passing by the trap, biologists said, and one 181/2;-inch adult steelhead was released from the trap. VanDyke, and other ODFW personnel have witnessed salmon during late spring and early summer runs jumping at the Granite Street Dam.
"Fish are telling us they actually want to get up stream," he said. "We're certainly interested in the city discussing whether there is a way we can consider getting fish upstream from Granite Street Dam."
Many steps have been taken to improve the stream over the past few decades, he said. Three dams were taken out of Ashland Creek with Lithia Park in the 1990s, which is the reason people are seeing large steelhead swimming through Lithia Park again.
Last September, adult fall chinook salmon were discovered in spawning in Bear Creek gravel within the confines of Ashland's North Mountain Park for the first time in 30 years. That same month, biologists sank an underwater camera in an Ashland Creek pool within Lithia Park and streamed video of young wild steelhead finning about to the wonder of park visitors.
English said his crews will be back to work on the project Oct. 15, replanting the banks within the project area with native plants: alder, willow, cottonwood, Oregon white ash, snowberry among other species.
"We just need to wait for a little rain. That will give the plants a chance to survive," English said. "It'll look a lot prettier once spring hits."
His company was awarded the $247,452 contract by the city after more than two years of research, planning and analysis of the site, city Project Manager Morgan Wayman said.
In addition to restoring natural vegetation and fish habitat along the creek, the project will ensure the stream's ability to handle a major storm at the Water Street bridge, Wayman said.
More than 4 feet of sediment collected under the Water Street Bridge since the existing span was constructed in 2005, filling most of the creek's channel and widening the stream to more than 40 feet beneath the bridge, project engineer Russ Lawrence said.
The water was less than a foot deep beneath the bridge, where it's now several feet deep with a channel width of no more than 15 feet, he said.
The stream section is about 40 percent deeper than it was before the project, and its downward grade will be increased by about 2 percent in the project area, Lawrence said.
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email email@example.com.