In certain places, it’s easy to forget about Jordan Creek: its lower reaches run between parking lots, shopping complexes, and the airport.
It’s also easy to forget the area around a large part of it is the Jordan Creek Greenbelt, managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation department.
“You walk along some of that habitat and you’re like ‘How is anything living?’” said Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition program director Angie Flickinger. “It’s pretty cool to get some green infrastructure going. There’s a lot of potential.”
Parts of it are choked with reed canary grass, an invasive species that edges out lupine, ferns and other indigenous plants. Contaminants from parking lots drain directly into much of the lower creek. Snow plows push snow directly onto it, and when that snow melts, parking lot rocks and other contaminants sift down into the stream.
Jordan Creek has also seen some good news in recent years, however. A team of agencies and volunteers have long worked to restore it to health; it’s been on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s impaired water body list since 1998. And in 2013, it met all the state’s water quality guidelines.
It’s improving, but it still has problems – and its problems are the problems of the 10,000 coho smolt it produces every year, as well as the chum and pink salmon, steelhead, cutthroat trout and dolly varden char that inhabit it or use it to spawn.
The Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, in partnership with the Juneau Watershed Partnership, recently got grants from the Alaska Clean Water Action grant at the Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through a partnership with Wells Fargo, to address one of those problems, which Juneau Watershed Partnership project manager Amy Sumner hopes will be a model for the rest of the work they propose.
They’ve begun constructing a rain garden — an 80-foot long and 20-foot wide slightly sunken garden with a rocky bottom, a soil top, and indigenous plants that do well in watery places. (It’s a bit delayed because of complications with equipment and volunteer coordination — landowner Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is working with the agencies, volunteering its services and the use of its equipment.) Volunteer Dave Hanna, who owns Alaska Concrete Casting, has donated both his time and equipment to do excavation work on the garden, Sumner said.
Before, a ditch led from the unpaved parking lot directly to Jordan Creek; once it’s completed, the ditch will flow to the rain garden, where the earth will filter the water and capture its sediment.
Volunteers have also constructed a split-rail cedar fence whose goal is to prevent snowplows from pushing parking lot-fallen snow, and its accompanying contaminants, into Jordan Creek, and they’ve planted willows and alders to improve the habitat around the stream.
“Riparian habitat is pretty important,” Sumner said. “It helps treat the water, and it provides shade.”
Because of the pollutants it carries, storm water is a big problem for salmon and other fish; storm water runoff can kill adult coho in just 2 ½ hours, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology, as first reported in the Seattle Times.
Rain gardens, according to that article, filter the sediment so well that when they’re used, the runoff has no effect on fish.
Rain gardens “seem to be the big environmental trend right now,” Sumner said.
Anchorage is promoting them, and Haines’ Takshanuk Watershed Council, and the Taiya Inlet Watershed Council in Skagway, have recently completed either a rain garden or a similar bioswale, Flickinger said.
The Juneau Watershed Partnership has mapped storm water flows into lower Jordan Creek, starring them as places that need some work.
This project, said Sumner, is relatively small. But it went first because Central Council is willing to work with the agencies, an important piece of the puzzle they’re still working out at other locations. (Sumner thinks there will likely be money left over from this project to start a project at another starred area.)
The goal right now is to get the area stabilized before winter and then finish the rain garden with plantings after spring thaw.
“We’re hoping that other landowners along Jordan Creek will see how it’s working, and see that if they work with us, they can potentially get a project funded on their own property,” Sumner said. “It’s kind of like our little demonstration project.”
The “pie in the sky” idea Sumner would love to see funded is a makeover of the Jordan Creek Greenbelt, which is owned by the city.
“We don’t think anybody realizes it’s a park,” Sumner said. “If people are using it, maybe they’ll be more conscious about what’s going into the creek. We want to start boosting awareness about that.”
She wants to get rid of the invasive reed canary grass, plant native riparian plants, like willows and alders, and build a big storm water wetland that would switch back and forth to filter the water. Right now, the runoff from the industrial area around the creek enters into it unfiltered. To counter the size of the area, the tributary to the creek would have to be long.
“If we can treat that storm water, that one little section of Jordan Creek is going to be so much better off,” Sumner said.
Right now, there’s a trail and a footbridge. There’s also trash – soda cans, empty chip bags. They’d like to add trash cans, improve the path, and add benches.
“We’d like to make that area into a usable park,” she said.
They hope to work both with Fish and Wildlife, Saint Vincent de Paul, and with the airport to mitigate concerns about birds, Sumner said.
“It’s a little unknown treasure within a highly developed area,” Sumner said.
• Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Editor's note: This story originally said that a grant was from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with Wells Fargo. It was actually from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, in partnership with Wells Fargo.