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Stream Makeover

Trying to get one little elderberry starter plant into the hardpan along southeast Medford's Larson Creek shows just how tough it can be to bring life to damaged urban waterways.

Eighteen-year-old Damian Van Mater leans all his weight onto a gas-powered auger to start a hole, then fellow Job Council worker Austin Underwood primes it with water to help loosen for what passes as soil.

Then Underwood shovels out more dirt and rocks before installing the elderberry shoot, some good soil, a little fertilizer and a protective coating of bark mulch.

"This is ridiculously hard, but it's not impossible," says Underwood, 17, of Grants Pass. "We're getting it done."

The stream in southeast Medford is in the midst of a major makeover this fall, the latest step in an ongoing effort to revitalize this urban tributary of Bear Creek to make it more salmon-friendly and to restore stream health in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Other work calls for replacing two culverts beneath two streets where wild salmon migration is halted at times, expanding access to upstream portions of Larson Creek that are in better shape.

"We're looking at the big picture of getting more large pieces of Larson Creek more fish-friendly," says Greg Stabach, a natural project leader in the Natural Resources Department of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments.

The work includes planting of nearly 13,000 native plants over the next month that will do more than just create a nice, shady canopy to cool the creek and invite songbirds and other wildlife, including urban hikers.

The plantings will help capture some filthy urban runoff during storms, creating healthier water and reducing the drastic rises and drops that are customary in urban creeks surrounded by surfaces impermeable to rain.

"That's a no-brainer," says Chuck Fustish, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist who has studied and worked on Larson Creek. "Anything that can be done on these urban streams that can help bring them back to more natural conditions is a benefit."

Just as critical, however, are separate projects making culverts under Ellendale Avenue and Larson Creek Drive more conducive to regular migration of wild steelhead, chinook salmon and coho salmon, which are listed here as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Though adult fish such as spawning winter steelhead can at times make it past the culverts, the impediments block upstream passage of juvenile salmon and steelhead that take refuge in Larson Creek when storms and urban runoff make Bear Creek uninhabitable.

By altering the pitch and water speed through the culvert, more young salmon will be able to take advantage of upstream portions of Larson Creek already improved during past projects. That will allow more wild salmon to share southeast Medford neighborhoods with local residents.

Larson Creek flows through large southeast Medford residential areas, past St. Mary's School, Rogue Valley Manor and into Bear Creek near Interstate 5's new south Medford interchange.

The areas tapped for planting were earlier cleared of invasive blackberry plants to make room for an array of native plants such as ash, Oregon grape, cedar, pine and elderberry, says Kelly Miller, an RVCOG natural resources technician working on the planting effort Friday with the Job Council.

The planting will continue through November, Miller says.

The planting is being done now because cool weather and rain will give the young plants a better shot at survival, Stabach says. It also gives Stabach time to create some form of irrigation system for them, such as tapping into water systems for the Manor and other nearby businesses to create a drip system.

The school, Manor, local Boy Scouts and several private businesses have become partners in this tree-planting project with the city of Medford and RVCOG, which is overseeing the effort.

It could ultimately include a tie-in to the Bear Creek Greenway along lower Larson Creek, and the Manor already has granted an easement for it.

"It's about community partnerships for us," says Sarah Smith, the Manor's director of marketing. "We're just always looking to host projects like this that help the community.

"This is something that will be enjoyed by a lot of people," Smith says. "We're happy to do it."

The community partnership was a big factor in garnering a nearly $30,000 grant from Pacific Power's Blue Sky Habitat program last year, says Adrian McCarthy, communications director of The Freshwater Trust, which administers the program for Pacific Power.

And it all comes down to Van Mater leaning on the gas auger to dimple the Manor's hardpan enough for yet another elderberry shoot to grow.

"It's pretty hard, even though I'm cheating with this drill," says Van Mater, who points to Underwood and others jamming shovels into freshly augered holes. "I feel sorry for those guys."

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

Stream Makeover