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Still in the pipeline

A fish impediment in Bear Creek continues years after officials learned it is a barrier to migrating salmon

The somber scene beneath Medford’s Jackson Street bridge has become predictable in recent years as a rite of passage for native fall chinook salmon spawning in Bear Creek.

An adult chinook fins in a shallow pool then darts as best it can to shoot over an abandoned sewer pipe that creates a 4-foot barrier between the chinook and upstream spawning gravels.

But the chinook clunks its head against the pipe and falls back into the pool, just like its forefathers did.

“Man, that one was close,” sighs Jim Hutchins, the unofficial Bear Creek salmon surveyor who has monitored Bear Creek’s chinook for the past three decades.

This year’s chinook returning to Bear Creek are the second full generation of salmon that have had to grapple with the exposed pipe that by all accounts has no constituency asking to keep it in place.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneA chinook salmon works its way up a waterfall Thursday on Bear Creek near Rogue Valley Mall.

Rather, quibbling over how best to remove this fish-passage barrier so it doesn’t cause more problems for humans than it solves for fish remains a conundrum unsettled since the dead pipe reared its ugly head in 2017.

The pipe’s been capped and ready for a simple notching since 2018. Yet concerns that doing so might lead to erosion around the Interstate 5 viaduct abutments, which sit on bedrock rather than sunk into it, so far has time standing still under the bridge.

“Give us a break,” Hutchins says. “Cut a notch so the fish can get up This isn’t rocket science. How long does it take to do that?“

That break might finally come in the form of renewed interest among various governmental agencies that each have a dog in the fight.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has the pipe listed on its statewide priority list of fish barriers in need of removal, and the Oregon Department of Transportation is looking for a long-term solution that helps migrating fish without harming the viaduct’s abutments.

ODOT meets Friday with the city of Medford to discuss, among other things, moving forward with the Jackson Creek dilemma.

“It’s apparent the problem is not going away,” ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming says. “Something has to be done.The problem is only going to get worse amid Bear Creek’’s drought-induced stream flows.”

Despite the barrier, fall chinook salmon continue to clear the concrete hurdle annually.

Last week, Hutchins counted more than 100 chinook upstream of the pipe. That’s better than all of last year.

However, they were all only larger fish. Smaller jack salmon have yet to show up in upstream surveys, Hutchins says.

Also, ODFW biologists Wednesday placed a series of sandbags to funnel water into a single jumping area for salmon.

But by Thursday morning, someone had stripped all the sandbags away, creating a thin ribbon of water creek-wide and not funneled into a clear migration path. Now the conditions are worse than ever for the chinook.

“Who the hell would do something like that?” Hutchins says. “Geez, I’ve seen everything other than a corpse down here.”

Ironically, the dilemma beneath the Jackson Street bridge dates back to the 1998 removal of the Jackson Street dam. At the time it was hailed as the first dam-removal in the West strictly to improve salmon migration.

Over time, hydrology reared its unsympathetic head. Flows created upstream scouring of the creek bed, exposing the mothballed pipe as well as a concrete bridge used to protect some old fiber-optic cables years ago.

It’s called a head-cut, and it proves that it’s a very possible conclusion to notching the pipe.

Since 2017, migrating chinook have had to swim under the concrete then jump the pipe before heading upstream as far as Ashland to spawn. Moreover, juvenile salmon rearing in Bear Creek struggle to traverse the pipe as they migrate upstream in search of cooler confines in summer.

ODOT’s 2018 concerns that removing or notching the pipe could cause similar problems for upstream viaduct abutments halted any work until a hydrological study could be done. That study still hasn’t happened.

ODOT can’t fund it with gas-tax money because its not technically a road-improvement project, officials say.

ODFW fish biologist Dan VanDyke says there seems to be a renewed effort to solve this fish-passage dilemma sooner than later.

“We’re going to stay on this until it’s fixed,” VanDyke says.

In the meantime, the clunking of chinook against the pipe will continue. But salmon are tough critters, and they’ll adapt to whatever downtown Medford throws at them.

Chinook that can’t make the jump likely will migrate downstream to find suitable gravel for spawning, such as the water behind Rogue Valley Mall.

“They’re survivors,” Hutchins says. “They won’t wait until their eggs fall out to find a place to spawn.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.