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Made in the Shade

Nicole Del Pizzo peers over the stripped south bank of east Medford's Lone Pine Creek, casting a lone shadow unchallenged by trees or brush.

A healthy creek bank would be rife with shade-bearing native trees, but this bare stretch near Table Rock Road becomes so superheated at times in the summer that wild salmon and steelhead can't use it.

"This site is desperate for trees and shade," said Del Pizzo, education director for the Lomakatsi Restoration Project and a trained landscape designer.

That shade now is on its way.

After decades of abuse and neglect, the lower stretch of Lone Pine Creek is getting a little love from a trio of habitat-improvement projects that should help cool down this often sizzling stream.

The stretch of creek that has been re-channeled through the Medford airport and funneled through an exposed concrete chute creates some of the hottest tributary flows into Bear Creek, where it harms wild salmon and steelhead already battling too-hot water.

But a new wetland by the Medford airport along the creek's north bank near the parking lot, as well as two planting projects on the creek's south banks, are expected to help offset the pounding sun's influence, becoming more friendly to the wild salmon and steelhead that inhabit it.

"This stream has been water-quality challenged for so long, but fish still use this stream," said Eugene Wier from the Freshwater Trust, which has its hands in two of the three projects.

Tributaries usually are cooling influences to streams such as Bear Creek, which runs in the high 70s in downtown Medford at times in summer — too hot for young salmon and steelhead to survive.

Lone Pine Creek has been its own hotbed of thermal influences in large part because of two exposed concrete channels. That includes the airport stretch, where the creek was moved to make way for a runway and funneled through a concrete channel with no streamside vegetation to shield the sun's heat.

A 2009 Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife survey found that fall water flowing out of the airport channel was up to 3.6 degrees warmer than that flowing into it, and the temperatures ranged from 73 to 88 degrees leaving that stretch.

During last year's drought, measurements showed the creek warmed seven degrees while passing through the airport, then cooled two degrees before trickling into Bear Creek at 78 degrees.

Improvements started with the airport's wetland mitigation, which was required when wetlands were filled in during two recent facilities improvements on airport grounds.

To make up for that loss, the airport funded a $310,000 project that is expanding and improving more than two acres of wetlands on the creek's north bank near the cellphone parking area. Though not done to benefit fish, it turned the head of Wier, who scours the Rogue River Basin for fish-improvement projects.

"We thought this was a great opportunity for us to do something on the south side and enhance what they were doing," Wier said.

When it comes to reducing the sun's influence on creek temperatures, the south bank is where it's at. A healthy riparian zone of native bushes and trees capture the sun's rays, thereby reducing temperatures.

The Freshwater Trust garnered a federal Bureau of Reclamation grant to establish 2.5 acres of new native riparian zone plantings on the opposite bank from the airport's project. The work will end up costing more than $100,000 and will include up to eight years of monitoring and maintenance to ensure its survival and viability, Wier said.

The project was expected to reduce the sun's warming of the creek by an average of 3.06 million kilocalories per day when the riparian area is fully mature, Wier said.

A kilocalorie, also known as a kilocal, is a measurement of a heat source on water. It represents the amount of energy needed to warm a liter of water by 1 degree Celsius at sea level.

Lomakatsi had its eyes on a half-acre stretch of the creek's south bank on private land off Table Rock Road. Lomakatsi garnered about $27,000 in grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pacific Power's Blue Sky Habitat Fund to anchor a project to swap out non-native blackberries for a slew of native trees and bushes.

Del Pizzo thought it was the perfect location to get local school and youth groups to help create that transformation.

She sketched out a mosaic pattern to intersperse about 500 cottonwoods, Oregon ash, incense cedar and shrubs such as Pacific ninebark — all grown in Lomakatsi's greenhouses and tended by school groups.

A school group planted trees and shrubs Wednesday and another crew was slated to help Saturday.

The project also will be fitted with irrigation from a Medford Water Commission line present on the property.

Collectively, the projects in time will reduce the sun's hostilities to wild salmon and steelhead that use the lower creek stretch when the water allows.

"They will complement each other well," Wier said. "It's almost like a renaissance."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Habitat-improvement projects are underway to help cool the water on Lone Pine Creek near the Medford airport. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Eugene Wier from the Freshwater Trust and Nicole Del Pizzo, Lomakatsi Recreation Project's education director, spread mulch along Lone Pine Creek near Table Rock Road in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch