Impaired urban Southeast stream shows signs of life

Posted: Monday, October 28, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- For the first time in the nine years he has lived near the headwaters of Duck Creek, Wilson Valentine has seen fish in the stream.

''It was exciting to see because we're all the way at the headwaters, and now there are salmon getting that far,'' Valentine said.

Spring-fed Duck Creek, which winds for about 3 1/2 miles through subdivisions in the Mendenhall Valley before it flows into Gastineau Channel at Juneau International Airport, is on a state list of ''impaired'' streams.

Years of runoff of pollutants and an upwelling of rusting iron particles from groundwater have damaged habitat for salmon. But restoration efforts have been helping the stream and a larger-than-usual coho run this year has shown what Duck Creek could be in the future if more efforts are made to increase the stream's flow and reduce barriers to fish movement.

Biologist K Koski walked along the creek near its urban headwaters last week and pointed to gravel in the stream bed where coho had laid eggs. Several red and green spawning adults hung in the fast-flowing water and wriggled away in a cloudy rush.

''It's good to see them in here,'' said Koski, who works for the National Marine Fisheries Service. ''It really is. Hopefully, we can get it fixed up.''

Wild chum are extinct in the stream, although some hatchery fish wander into the creek's lower reaches, Koski said. Coho that overwintered as juveniles sometimes return as adults to spawn, but their eggs don't survive. The fry of some cutthroat trout survive.

The adult cohos Valentine saw are part of a large run in northern Southeast, Koski said. Recent heavy rains helped fill the stream with water, making it easier for the salmon to move upstream.

The Duck Creek Advisory Group, composed of citizens, business people and government agencies, has built projects on the stream to show how it can be restored. Its members have replaced small culverts at road crossings with larger ones, turned iron-filled dredge ponds into green marshes that filter sediment, and lined part of the stream bed to keep the water in.

In a pilot project to see if some rust could be removed from the stream, Koski and Dr. Ed Herricks of the University of Illinois installed a machine that collects stream water and sediment and pumps it through a bag filter, beating like a heart, before returning the cleaned water to the creek.

They'd like to do more. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in spring 2000 offered $2.75 million to restore Duck Creek if the city would contribute $1.25 million in cash, materials or work. That project awaits agreement of the parties.

The Corps' completion of an environmental assessment was delayed after Juneau airport officials asked the agency to consider whether improved fish habitat in Duck Creek, which passes by the north end of the runway, would lead to more birds congregating at the airport.

Airport officials have been concerned for years that birds attracted by fish carcasses in streams are a hazard to aircraft.

''We do have a serious wildlife management problem on the airport. And Duck Creek, for obvious reasons, does contribute to that,'' said airport manager Allan Heese.

Airport officials would like to move Duck Creek away from the runway to improve runway safety and develop vacant land for hangars. Those projects await completion of an environmental impact statement.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said proposed stream improvements would enable chum salmon to move further upstream and spawn away from the airport.

Restoration also has been delayed by discussions over a proposal to pipe water from Nugget Creek, near the Mendenhall Glacier, to Duck Creek to add to its water flow. Although much of the pipe would be on national forest land, the city was concerned about maintenance costs, liability and flooding, said Rorie Watt of the city Engineering Department.

''It just didn't seem like a very good idea. It was substantially expensive,'' he added.

Bill Abadie, a biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, said the idea still is under discussion but would need its own environmental analysis. Meanwhile, the rest of the work is worth doing first, he said.

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