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Bear Creek fish barrier no closer to removal

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Two years after being discovered in downtown Medford, two adjoining impediments to wild salmon and steelhead migration in Bear Creek remain — with no removal in the foreseeable future.

An abandoned and exposed sewer pipe as well as a sheet of concrete under which the creek flows beneath the Jackson Street Bridge are no closer to being removed heading into their third summer.

State fish biologists and local supporters have yet to find the $40,000 needed for an engineering study to ensure that any potential fix doesn’t threaten to erode land around a nearby Interstate 5 Viaduct abutment — a key first step toward either removal or alteration of the impediments for easier passage by wild adult and juvenile salmon and steelhead, authorities said.

No money, no study. No study, no fix.

“So it could be a couple-three years,” said Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Rogue District fish biologist. “I’d love to see it fixed sooner.”

But the impetus to fix these fish-migration barriers inched forward this spring when the obstacles collectively joined 590 other stream barriers on ODFW’s Statewide Fish Passage Barrier Priority List.

The Jackson Street Bridge dilemmas are not among the state’s top 10 impediments. In fact, three other groups of 20 barriers are ahead of it, according to the list. Its fish-passage barrier level is listed at 3 on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 being no barrier and 5 being complete blockage, according to the list.

But just getting on that list “light it up, puts it on our radar,” says Executive Director Brian Barr of the Rogue River Watershed Council. “That’s the cue that puts it squarely on our radar screen.”

The designation, Barr says, will better leverage future grant money for the study.

For the past two autumns, adult fall chinook salmon have been able to swim through a hole in the concrete “bridge” and jump the 4-foot-high pipe, and watching them do so has become a participatory sport among gawkers who take pictures and videos of the successful and unsuccessful jumps.

“We had reports of fall chinook all the way up to Valley View Road (near Ashland), so we know they’re getting over,” VanDyke said. “The juveniles are the biggest issue.”

Young chinook and steelhead are known to migrate up and down Bear Creek in search of cooler, cleaner water, particularly during low-flow summer periods when water-quality can be at its worst.

That means this summer, young salmon and steelhead downstream of Jackson Street Bridge will have to move down Bear Creek in search of better water instead of migrating upstream toward the cooler waters of Ashland Creek, a main Bear Creek tributary with some of the coolest summer inflows in the Bear Creek Basin.

The problems below Jackson Street Bridge can be traced to the 1998 removal of the old Jackson Street dam, the first dam in the West removed specifically for wild salmon improvements.

Over time, that removal triggered upstream erosion during high-water events.

That so-called “head cut” erosion is blamed for scouring the creekbed immediately downstream and upstream of the Jackson Street Bridge, initially carving out a pool that was as much as 4 feet below a concrete-and-rock lip originally constructed to protect utility lines that ran east-to-west under the creek.

The creek also ate away rock just upstream of the bridge, exposing the old sewer pipe while scouring out the ground beneath the concrete lip. Now, a ribbon of water flows over the pipe before falling 4 feet to a small pool and then running underground into the downstream pool.

“It’s a strange story,” Barr says. “Remove a fish-passage barrier and find a fish-passage barrier.”

ODOT officials want assurances that any fix beneath the bridge won’t trigger similar upstream erosion, particularly around an I-5 Viaduct abutment in Hawthorne Park that is not embedded in bedrock.

While ODOT’s concerns triggered the technical review, ODOT officials have said the agency can’t fund any of that engineering or design work because it’s not technically a road project.

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

A chinook salmon attempts to navigate a barrier on Bear Creek under Jackson Street Bridge in Medford last October. Mail Tribune File Photo
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