Another close look at Ashland Creek by fish and wildlife biologists last month revealed more 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, is native fish are using Ashland Creek despite numerous challenges," said Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist.
Crews finished reconstructing portions of the creek channel and removing a century-old irrigation dam on Sept. 7, said Scott English, principal restoration biologist for Ashland-based Northwest Biological Consulting, which is conducting the work for the city of Ashland.
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 was carried out with the help of ODFW on Aug. 9. Biologists counted 246 trout fry, 180 steelhead between 3 and 11 inches long, eight coho salmon, three Pacific giant salamanders and 167 sculpin.
Sculpin are a native, bottom-feeding fish, VanDyke said.
The trout fry likely were produced by last winter's steelhead run, he said. The 180 steelhead 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.
A fish-trapping effort from December 2011 to March 2012 yielded 18 juvenile steelhead, eight juvenile coho, two cutthroat and one adult steelhead, with 85 percent of the stream's fish likely passing by the trap, biologists said. One 181/2;-inch adult steelhead was released from the trap.
Ashland Creek historically has been Bear Creek's primary source for cold, clean water, VanDyke said. It is also the source of Ashland's drinking water and some hydroelectric power, and is used to flush effluent from the city's water treatment plant.
Several diversion sites, including the Million Ditch diversion pipe, which crews repositioned and outfitted with a fish screen as a part of the project, siphon water off the creek.
Some of those diversion areas include partial concrete barriers that limit the ability of fish to get upstream during low water flows, VanDyke said.
VanDyke and other ODFW personnel have witnessed salmon jumping at the Granite Street Dam during late spring and early summer.
"Fish are telling us they actually want to get upstream," 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 within 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 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 with native plants such as alder, willow, cottonwood, Oregon white ash and 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.
Now it's 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.
Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or email email@example.com.