WHITE CITY — Craig Harper peers over a vast field of non-native reed canary grass that seems to gobble up Whetstone Creek and he insists there's a creek channel in there, somewhere.

WHITE CITY — Craig Harper peers over a vast field of non-native reed canary grass that seems to gobble up Whetstone Creek and he insists there's a creek channel in there, somewhere.

He's just not quite sure where.

"It's really amazing," says Craig Harper, natural resources program manager for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. "You walk around on those mats of reed canary grass and all of a sudden you fall in to your waist, and there's the creek."

The heavy mats of thick grass not only hide hundreds of yards of this upper Rogue River tributary, it blocks native vegetation from growing and creates a nearly impenetrable barrier to native salmon and steelhead that once took refuge there in winter.

But that might change.

A consortium of public and private industrial landowners along Whetstone Creek are looking into whether restoration efforts can reclaim the creek from its vast grass morass.

They envision a healthy creek lined with natural vegetation and full of native salmon smack dab in the middle of an industrial area, linking the Rogue to Denman Wildlife Area off Table Rock Road.

"You look out and think it's beyond repair," Harper says. "But there are no buildings next to the creek and there's a lot of potential here to bring it back to a higher function."

The first step could come next month when the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board decides whether to approve a $10,000 technical-assistance grant that could help flush out possible solutions to this habitat malady. That conceptual plan could then serve as a springboard for restoration grants for the actual work, Harper says.

No one yet knows how much time or money this endeavor would take, but partners are starting to line up.

Managers at Knife River Materials, which owns swaths of land on both sides of Whetstone Creek, say restoration work now can ensure that the creek remains viable fish habitat as development over time starts to fall in around it.

"You help a little here, help a little there and eventually you have a better-functioning riparian area," says Knife River's Aggregate Resources Manager Tom Gruszczenski, who wrote a letter in support of the OWEB grant request.

"It's doable," Gruszczenski said.

Biological surveys show that even the most damaged upper Rogue tributaries such as Whetstone Creek play key roles in the survival of the Rogue's native salmon and steelhead.

They are most often used as a refuge by juvenile salmon and steelhead to escape the roiling Rogue during winter freshets, studies show.

Trapping conducted on lower Whetstone Creek in the winter of 2005-06 captured 35 juvenile steelhead and 39 juvenile coho — which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A trap set this winter between flats of canary reed grass near Whetstone Pond has caught just one mosquito fish and one bluegill, suggesting blocked passage within the 1.4 miles of grass-choked creek, says Chuck Fustish, the ODFW fish biologist conducting the surveys.

One possible solution outlined in 2008 by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist calls for discovering the actual channel and artificially deepening it. That would keep water in the channel, drying out and killing the grass while providing fish passage.

Chunks of the dead grass could be removed to make room for native ash, willows or other plants that could over time cloak the stream to provide cooling shade that would make the creek much more fish-friendly.

Also, upgrades to culverts would allow fish to swim more easily under Kirtland and Table Rock roads and during more flow conditions.

Harper says he hopes the OWEB grant will look at that form of restoration.

But for now, Whetstone Creek remains cloaked in a grassy skirt across vasts stretches of fields on both sides of Table Rock Road.

"There is a creek there," Harper says. "Trust me."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.